There are probably a dozen ways to make sense of the Sundance Film Festival, America’s largest gathering of movie fans, critics, and industry movers and shakers. It serves as a litmus test for the state of American independent cinema; it’s a way to gauge early critical buzz on some of the year’s upcoming releases; and it’s an acquisition market, where smaller films are picked up by distributors and begin the journey to a screen near you. This year, I also came to see Sundance as one of God’s gardens.
The garden motif was suggested by Makoto Fujimura, who spoke at one of the Windrider Forum gatherings I attended while at the festival. Author, artist, and director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center, Fujimura encouraged the 200 or so Christians in attendance to view the festival as a shared garden to be tended, rather than territory to be won. Our calling as culturally engaged Christians, he said, is “to reach out to the world which may not understand what we believe, yet we know God in his goodness gave this gift [of creativity] to unbelievers as well.”
So what did I encounter in Sundance’s garden? Although different in many ways, three of the films I saw reflected our innate desire as image-bearing creatures to be valued and loved by our creator. In Roxanne Roxanne, based on the life of groundbreaking hip-hop emcee Lolita Shanté Gooden, a teen girl growing up in New York’s Queensbridge projects finds identity and affirmation in the underground rap scene of the 1980s, despite it mostly being a man’s game. As Shanté—played with a wide smile and rhyming ferocity by newcomer Chanté Adams—says at one point, “I made a record and did laundry at the same time.” Shanté’s songs, then, are not just a new form of music, but also a bold way of claiming her imago dei.
Fujimura encouraged us to view the festival as a shared garden to be tended, rather than a territory to be won.
A less inspiring journey toward affirmation is the one taken by the title character of Ingrid Goes West, played by Aubrey Plaza. Something of a Rupert Pupkin for our social-media age, Ingrid insinuates her way into the picture-perfect life of an Instagram celebrity (think Kim Kardashian, though played by Elizabeth Olsen). It soon becomes clear, however, that it isn’t the manicured lifestyle Ingrid desires (she can’t stomach the foodie dishes her new “best friend” favors) as much as the digital attention that Insta-celebrity delivers. Also seeking the wrong sort of attention in the wrong places are two of the family members of Landline, a 1990s-set dramedy in which an engaged adult daughter (Jenny Slate) who is cheating on her fiancé discovers that her father (John Turturro) is also having an affair. The dissatisfaction expressed by these characters is a sign of spiritual dislocation. We long to be in right relationship with God—to be recognized and loved by him as his created beings—yet we’re separated by our sin. Flailing about to fulfill that need elsewhere, we only increase our separation all the more.
Both Landline and Ingrid Goes West follow a familiar Sundance pattern, which Craig Detweiler, another Windrider speaker, put in theological terms. The movies shown at the festival, he explained, are more often prophetic rather than pastoral—meaning they point out the problems with the human condition, without offering biblical answers. This was certainly true of another pair of movies I took in, in which the desacralization of sex was taken to extremes. Kuso—a revolting concoction of gross-out effects, collage animation, and recurring live-action vignettes—takes place in a post-earthquake Los Angeles where the blistered survivors engage in sex as little more than a biological urge. I counted 18 walkouts in my screening alone. Far more interesting, though no less provocative, was Raw, a horror film about a vegetarian veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier) who suddenly takes to meat—of all kinds—when she goes off to school. Like most horror, Raw can serve a variety of metaphorical needs; certainly one of them is as a parable about the consequences of giving in to our every desire (sex in the movie is depicted as little more than a craving to be satisfied).
It probably seems as if we’re far away from anything that could be called God’s garden at this point. How does something like Kuso fit into Fujimura’s framework? What does it mean to be a Christian cultivator at Sundance, where prophetic visions of humanity’s depravity tend to dominate the screens? I’d suggest tending this garden means to first recognize that it is shared. Some at Sundance use their God-given talents to offer despairing visions of his world; others know such despair has an answer. If we don’t give space in the garden to the former, we won’t have an opportunity to offer the latter.