Blog: Big stars, deep docs at Sundance

In his first day at the festival, Alan Bacchus takes a look at Peter Sattler's Camp X-Ray, Geethu Mohandas' Liar's Dice and the documentary The Overnighters.
Sundance lines - 300x200 - Alan Bacchus

A good omen started the day – pretty much the easiest journey through Pearson Airport ever. Only six  people in the customs line. Two flights later, I’m back in Salt Lake City. Agenda included hotel check in, Sundance badge, Slamdance badge.

Then the requisite walk down Main Street where everybody makes eye contact with everybody just in case they pass a celebrity – guilty as charged for me.

Then the action starts, moving back and forth between the P&I holding tent and the Holiday Village cinemas. The first film was India’s World Dramatic Cinema entry Liars’s Dice, directed by Geethu Mohandas.

Not a Bollywood extravaganza in the least, this picture had the Sundance indie stamp – a desperate journey of a woman, her daughter, her prickly male guide and their baby goat to find her missing husband/father.

While not a maxed out screening, it made for a strong first show: vivid, uncompromising and moving, yet doubtful for high profile sale.

The Kristen Stewart-starrer Camp X-Ray, directed by Peter Sattler, was up next, a popular one which required investing in 45 minute wait. It was worth it. Although, the ability to instantly hear other critics’ reactions via Twitter from a screening in the morning or the night before is strange, and disconcerting if it’s negative.

A couple of negative reviews, including one from Indiewire, seemed to lower people’s expectations slightly. The film, however, was anchored not only by Stewart’s fine work but also by another great performance from A Separation’s Payman Moaadi in an English-speaking role.

A strangely optimistic character piece showing the coming together of a Guantanamo Bay detainee and one his military guards, finding common ground in their mutual angst. And by the amount of retweets of my positive reaction, Stewart fans are still rabid and out in force (at least on social media).

I sadly missed out on the already buzzed-about Hellion (no, not the Bruce McDonald film in production) which was at capacity very early. A breakout performance from 13-year-old Josh Wiggins, playing a delinquent who loses his family, seems to be in order.

Instead of relishing in this afterglow, I sauntered into the earth-shattering The Overnighters, a doc about a small town North Dakota pastor who takes in migrant workers looking for jobs during the region’s oil boom.

Masterfully constructed, the film’s trajectory is unexpected, treacherous and packs a wallop in the end. More festival play, theatrical distribution and awards consideration later in the year are in order for this one.

And so a long first day ends, one which started with a 5:15 a.m. (EST) alarm wake-up and will likely end with a 1:30 a.m. (PST) bedtime. That’s almost 24 hours. Good night.

Alan Bacchus is the Programs Manager for Bell Media’s The Harold Greenberg Fund, overseeing the Script Development Program for Canadian feature films. Alan is a member of the Online Film Critics Society, writing for Exclaim! as well as his own blog, dailyfilmdose.com.  Alan has also produced and directed a number of short films.