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Sundance Film Festival 2022

By: Claus Mueller

Organized by the non-profit Sundance Institute, the annual Sundance Film Festival (SFF) has been held for close to forty years, serving independent filmmakers and supporting their creative projects. SFF 2022 took place from January 20 -30 and was a fully remote festival as opposed to the 2021 hybrid approach with its mix of in-person viewing exposure and streaming options. SFF 2022 provided viewing options for its audience with the on-line platform and satellite casting curated sections of the festival program to seven independent arthouse cinemas in the US. This shift did not diminish the appeal of the festival. To the contrary, it enhanced SFF’s reputation as an outstanding US film festival. Going digital in the online version, drawing from the SFF 2021 experience, the festival continued to expand its global audience.

There were also a larger number of submissions from foreign countries this year. SFF won more acclaim for its long term professional training for young filmmakers, generating financial support for their productions, and for adopting new production technologies. Part of SFF’s mission has been the review of rapidly changing and expanding markets for independent films.

For the 2022 edition, 10,373 short films were submitted, with 4,701 from the US and 5,673 from other countries, of which 59 shorts were included in the virtual programs. There were a total of 14,849 submissions, including 3,762 feature films. 82 features were selected for the final program of which 91% were world premieres and came from 28 countries. The number of films submitted has grown from the 14,092 received the previous year. This abundance of submissions probably exceeds what other major festivals receive, particularly those which do not embrace digital viewing platforms. The ever increasing shift to streaming distribution reflects the diminishing importance of theatrical markets, of in person film viewing, as mirrored in the acquisitions of SFF films. Arriving with distribution before, or acquired during the festival, were 41 features, half of those in the program. Five of the 16 pre-buyers were streaming or cable companies which also acquired films during the festival in addition to two smaller streamers.

Sundance has excelled in enlarging future oriented programs, like The Space Show a virtual immersive encounter space and the New Frontier simulcast of Sam Green’s “32 Seconds”. The Sundance Institute focuses on creating new work through its labs, digital community platforms, advising ventures, and public platforms connecting audiences and artists. As articulated by Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Institute, the festival “is celebrating this generation’s most innovative storytellers… artists [who] have provided a light through the darkest of times”.

SFF 2022 concluded with many awards, 26 from the jury and six from the audience. Among the 2022 film festival sponsors were Acura, AMC+, Adobe, Amazon Studios, Netflix, Warner Media, Canon USA,, Unity Technologies, Indie Wire, LA Times, Variety, and the support from the State of Utah, which also helps to sustain the year round Sundance Film Festival programs for independent artists.

My review focuses on documentary productions elucidating current problem areas which have a data driven approach and a thought provoking execution. They lead the audience towards reflections to use the acquired knowledge for possible action. These documentaries address current persistent problems.

Netflix’s DOWNFALL: THE CASE AGAINST BOEING, a case study of Boeing demonstrates how a dominant US corporation is driven by the quest for increased profit at the careless expense of safety procedures and how the company eludes presumably mandatory supervision by federal agencies. The DOWNFALL will be screened on Netflix starting February 18.

The unassuming Israeli documentary, TANTURA , investigates the 1948 massacre of several hundred Palestinian civilians by members of an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Brigade and subsequent efforts to silence any debate of the massacre and erase its record. Funded in part by Israeli agencies, TANTURA echoes several other recent Israeli films critical of Israel’s role in the war of independence and the occupation of Palestinian territories.

TERRITORY, which I will review separately in a future post, stands out with superb cinematography and non-directive interviews with indigenous peoples threatened by extinction due to the Brazilian governmental facilitation of the destruction of the amazon rainforest and the few remaining tribal groups living there. Similar to Netflix’s DOWNFALL: THE CASE AGAINST BOEING, TERRITORY presents the notion of the pursuit of profits, a bigger and wealthier Brazil, an excuse espoused by illegal settlers and miners.

DOWNFALL: THE CASE AGAINST BOEING, directed by Rory Kennedy, presents an exemplary and comprehensive analysis of a corporation prioritizing profit over all other considerations. The film explores why a global aircraft maker, with an outstanding safety record of more than 10,000 commercial planes in the air by 2018, crashed two new Boeing's 737 MAX within five months. These disasters killed 346 people. Kennedy’s extensive research is supported by interviews with aviation experts, the families of victims, former Boeing employees including executives, and close to six hundred thousand documents mostly from American federal and foreign agencies. Congressional hearings clearly identify the causes for these man made tragedies. Boeing embraced cost savings policies as imposed by the new management installed after the merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in 1997. After the merger, Boeing’s emphasis shifted from engineering and safety to marketing and profit. In the long run, this shift was responsible for releasing modified versions of the 737 MAX which led to the two crashes. When Airbus introduced the bestselling A 320 in 2010, Boeing had no competing planes and decided to modify the existing 737, a plane designed over 40 years earlier rather than building a costly new 737 from the ground up as Airbus did with its new planes. A new plane would also have required a much longer FAA process delaying delivery of 737 planes and significantly increasing their costs.

DOWNFALL identified numerous other causal factors. Boeing gained control of the FAA, the federal agency responsible for the safety of planes used in the USA, and easily received certification for its airplanes. The company reduced its internal air plane safety/security staff dramatically and dismissed those opposing this policy. Boeing did not advise its pilots and staff completely of its MCAP modifications of the 737 MAX, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, despite Boeing’s knowledge that it impaired pilots’ ability to maneuver the 737 MAX. Boeing refused to ground the 737 MAX with the apparent consent cooperation from the FAA and rejected more training even before the first crash by the Lion Air 737 MAX on October 29, 2019. Lion Air had requested additional intensive training for its 737 MAX pilots. For a considerable time after the crashes, Boeing engaged in massive public relations campaigns and congressional lobbying which blamed the pilots and their airlines for the crashes. During this time, Boeing continued to pay large dividends, up to 20% annually, to shareholders and executives. Boeing also instituted a massive buyback increasing the value of shares owned by executives, fostering their greed for more. The global revenues of the company dropped from $101 billion in 2018 to 58 billion in 2020. Airbus became and still is the largest global plane manufacturer.

The congressional investigation of Boeing by Congressman Peter DeFazio which was released in September 2020 after a 18 month long investigation that was hampered by Boeing’s culture of concealment. The investigation revealed from Boeing’s internal company documents, airlines buying the 737 MAX were not fully informed of the 737 MAX modifications. Many Boeing employees refused to let their families fly on the 737 MAX. In memos also filed with the FAA, some considered the 737 MAX to be the most dangerous plane ever built, estimating a biannual crash of one 737. In a 2013 Boeing document, management was advised by staff that the MCAS system had been problematic from the very beginning. No action was taken by Boeing’s management. Its initial response claimed that the MCAS problem could be fixed in about three months. The 737 MAX planes were grounded for 20 months until November 2020 when the FAA approved to use the 737 MAX again.

Boeing avoided prosecution by the Department of Justice for a criminal conspiracy to defraud the FAA by paying a $2.5 billion fine. Congress passed a law to strengthen FAA oversight power and Boeing now requires extensive pilot training for the modified 737s. To the best of my knowledge, no Boeing executives have been legally held responsible. On the contrary, Dennis Muilenburg who served as the CEO of Boeing was forced to resign by the Boing board in December 2019 to restore confidence in the company. When he left the company, his golden parachute package reached more than $80 million including exercised stock options of $18.5 million and $62 million in pay and pension benefits. The company allocated $50 million to compensate the families of the 346 crash victims in 2018, amounting to $145,000 per family. In contrast, on February 17, 2022 Remington reached a settlement for $73 million with nine families whose children had been killed in the Sandy Hook shooting with Remington guns.

DOWNFALL cogently demonstrates how the hyper-capitalist drive for profits leads to the systematic concealment of corporate activities that override moral considerations or the frequently deadly impact of their actions on people using their services and products.

TANTURA addresses an equally significant issue, an objective assessment of a country's conflicted past and the eradication of facts and memories which contradict dominant political convictions of the government. Numerous Israeli film makers critically have recently dissected Israeli-Palestinian relations from Israel’s establishment to the present. They deflate the mythology of Israel as a nation guided solely by moral and democratic considerations.

TANTURA is a documentary case study by Alon Schwartz of the evidence surrounding the massacre of more than 200 civilians in the Palestinian fishing village of TANTURA on May 22, 1948, by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Alexandroni Brigade. Schwartz shows that a massacre took place in TANTURA after the village had surrendered. Though this is still contested by many Israelis and politicians there seems to be a shift in the perspective on TANTURA . Equally important are the observations by Schwartz on how the killings of civilians by the Alexandroni Brigade and other similar war crimes were officially and privately whitewashed. A history student, Teddy Katz, interviewed members of the Alexandroni Brigade and surviving residents about TANTURA and established an impressive oral history. He recorded his findings in a history Master’s thesis for the Haifa University but avoided using the term massacre. The thesis was initially accepted. After his thesis was written up in the press, the Alexandroni Veterans Association filed a defamation lawsuit. This forced Katz to submit a statement admitting errors in his research. Katz retracted the statement 12 hours later, but the court ruled against him as did the Israeli Supreme Court. The university revoked his degree after review of the thesis by five academics in a 3 to 2 decision. Of the three academics opposed to the Katz thesis two had previously written favorable reports about IDF activities. Katz was granted a general MA in history.

After visiting him, Schwartz received more than 100 hours of audio tapes of Teddy Katz interviews of 135 Jewish and Palestinian individuals, the basis for his master thesis. Schwartz digitally enhanced the tapes and focused on analyzing statements made by members of the Alexandroni Brigade to Katz. Schwartz discovered that several of the retired veterans confirmed directly or indirectly that they were involved with or had observed the killing of civilians in TANTURA . Others claimed they did not recall or requested that what they stated earlier should be erased. Some recalled details of soldiers killing many people, and others justified the killing or denied them. When Schwartz interviewed the few brigade survivors, now senior citizens, some in their early 90s, their recall of the event was more fractured. A few admitted that they and others killed some civilians during the war and invoked the death of fellow Israelis or other justifications. There was no specific recall of what happened to the Tantura people. But this apparent amnesia was likely encouraged by the Alexandroni Veterans Association. Former Palestinian TANTURA residents and individuals from neighboring villages told Schwartz that they were ordered to bury about 270 dead civilians in a mass grave. They identified the burial place, a site which is now under a parking lot near the beach.

The TANTURA story has been kept alive. The documentary did not generate a strong reaction at the Sundance festival. Experts interviewed for the film maintain that the massacre and ethnic cleansing during the war of independence and subsequent wars was embedded in the political context and the leadership of Ben Gurion and his followers. As quoted in TANTURA , Gurion argued that “we have to do the utmost that Arabs flee the Galilei”. As a former brigade member put it more succinctly, “beat them up and burn them and do all kinds of things. Villages and towns destroyed by the IDF cause them to flee”. TANTURA was one of the 400 Palestinian villages and towns destroyed by the IDF during the 1948 1949 war. In the fifties, Ben Gurion requested that a certified narration be created showing that the 750,000 – 800,000 Palestinians displaced by the war had left freely. In 1988, the IDF archive was scheduled to release documents about the war of independence, but the government imposed a strict censure.

To name but a few items from the censured list of documents which remained closed : Evacuation of palestinian communities, cruelty or violent behavior towards Arabs, killings and murders not in accordance with combat conditions, material harmful to the IDF, images the IDF as an occupying army, and any documents about mass graves. For Schwartz, this official whitewashing of Israel’s past had was guided by the “objective of protecting the myth that we are the most moral army and society in the world”

Claus Mueller is Senior New York Correspondent. He is based in New York where he covers the film, art, and political areas. He is professor emeritus at Hunter University of CUNY.




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