I am always on the search for a good story. Not like a journalist or reporter but as someone looking for enlightenment. I’m looking for opportunities to grow intellectually and, quite frankly, to be entertained. Film may be the most dynamic means of storytelling and one of the reasons why I am such a fan of our Chagrin Documentary Film Festival. Over the years I have also become a fan of the Sundance Film Festival and it is from Park City, Utah, home to Sundance, that I now sit at my computer weaving for you, my readers, my latest yarn.
To be honest, I often find myself out of place here at Sundance. Not only do the crowds here generally walk to a very different step than do I, a good number of movies shown here are simply too far out there for my taste. Clearly, I am not their target audience. That said, Sundance has afforded me an opportunity to experience a great many stories. In some cases, the films are dramatic works of primarily entertainment value and others, in the case of documentaries, have helped me better understand many of the complexities within the world we live in.
This year’s Sundance is no exception. There are a lot of very interesting folks walking the streets of Park City visiting the many venues here in town. I have been to many films. Some made me laugh; others made me cry. Some made me think, wonder and question, “how did this one get in?” Some fill you with hope and others drain away what little hope you may have had.
A couple of years back there was a documentary Return to Homs that told the story of a promising soccer player turned revolutionary freedom fighter in war-torn Syria. This sobering tale left me daunted, yet grateful, for the rare insight provided by the story. The single mission of the film maker, Talal Derki (a Syrian native now living in Germany) was to spread the real story behind what was and still is happening in his homeland. His latest film shown this year, Of Fathers and Sons, chronicles the daily life of a radical Islamic family for over 2 years. Posing as a pro-jihadist photojournalist making a documentary of the caliphate, Talal convinces the father (al-Nusra general Abu Osama) that he is a true “believer,” literally risking his life to bring this story to the Sundance screen. The camera focuses most attention on two young brothers, Osama and Ayman who, during this film, find their childhood slipping away while jihadism is born. During the post screening interview, Talal was asked what the most difficult scene that he filmed but was unable to show in the final movie. He broke down as he described witnessing a massacre of 24 innocent people and that while it happened he could not react or let his true emotions be known.
How can someone – anyone - risk so much to tell their story? It has nothing to do with money I can assure you. Documentaries such as I’ve described do not warrant big contracts like other popular movies. In the filmmaker’s words, “Syria is gone,” so it is only in his passion for what was his home does he risk everything to tell his story.
Even after seeing dozens of movies I still can’t get Of Fathers and Sons out of my mind. Why am I so drawn to this story… why has it affected me so? I have no means or intention to become more involved in political matters so what can I learn from this? What is my take away?
I suppose I realize that everyone has a back story that leads them to where they are and (more importantly) who they are today. Unless you know something about the history of another person, you really aren’t fully equipped to completely understand, to be capable of meeting them where they are. Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all advocating acceptance of radical Islamic beliefs. Rather, I am encouraging the acquisition of knowledge to better understand another’s point of view before it is discounted or marginalized.
Another realization I came to during my Sundance week is that it is up to each of us to grow from what we do, from the experiences we have and from observations we make. The refrain from the Sundance film festival this year is The Story Lives in You. I urge you to seek out the many stories that surround us all each and every day and utilize those narratives to your personal growth and intellectual prosperity.
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!