Arts Desk

What We Learned at Film Forward

The Washington stop of the Sundance Institute’s Film Forward began with a diplomatic slip-up—Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador, was unable to attend the press breakfast at his own embassy. It fell to one of the ambassador’s underlings to introduce the actress Kerry Washington.

“Really great films allow you to step outside yourself and see another’s experience,” said Washington—whose credits include The Last King of Scotland as well as the Fantastic Four series—as guests nibbled away at the continental spread. The actress, who wore a sleeveless black-and-white checked dress, was also there in her capacity as a member of the president’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a largely ceremonial panel whose boldface members show up at events to offer the White House’s stamp of approval.

The inside of the Canadian Embassy is sleek and modern, though the ballroom we sat in lacked any decoration save a few wall hangings, the closest of which depicted the silhouette of a standing grizzly bear.

Small, provocative films are as good a cultural exchange as anything, said Washington. “To do that allows us to communicate better politically and on a human level." I imagine this idea applies more to her role as one of Idi Amin’s battered wives in The Last King of Scotland than her turn as the The Thing's love interest in Fantastic Four.

Film Forward has taken its 10 films and most of their directors to locales including Tunisia, Istanbul, China, and Nashville. After a 10-minute promotional video about how movies can lead to dialogue and collaboration and more dialogue, four of the directors sat up front to talk about how their films have been received the world. Noting that the Tunisia event last December was just a few weeks before the uprising in that country, Amreeka director Cherien Dabis said that one of her producers had been jokingly taking credit for kindling the Arab Spring.

After the panel I chatted with Stanley Nelson, the documentarian whose latest, Freedom Riders, makes its formal premiere next week as a chapter of the PBS anthology American Experience. Nelson said his film about the 1961 bus rides taken by civil rights activists into the deep south elicited similar responses from both U.S. and Chinese audiences, but the reactions also offered a lesson about censorship.

"There's a self-censorship in China," Nelson told me. "For Americans censorship is something to be overcome. You can't open a part of a society without opening the rest. I think the Chinese government is smart enough to make things looser." Nelson, who had last visited China in the mid-1990s, said that he was startled by its progress since then. On his first visit, the streets were flush with bicycles. Today, they've all been replaced by cars.

Debra Granik, director of last year's Oscar dark horse Winter's Bone, and Lixin Fan, who made the startling documentary Last Train Home about Chinese migrant workers, complimented each other's films after breakfast.

"People could recognize what it takes to keep small children alive with very meager resources," Granik said of her film. "The very desire to survive is identical to the desire of the family in Last Train Home." Added Fan: "After they showed Winter’s Bone in China people were saying, 'Oh, so the financial crisis really had a huge toll on Americans.' It’s not just migrant workers who are struggling to feed their families."

All 10 films played at roughly the same time in screening rooms around the National Mall, starting at either 6 or 6:30 p.m. After the lights came up the filmmakers, Sundance folks, and some audience members made their way to the Smithsonian Gardens for a catered reception and more speeches. Per the international flavor of the film lineup, the menu was just as eclectic—papadums next to corn fritters next to chicken-curry skewers next to miniature phyllo rolls filled with lamb and apricot. The commingled artists, Smithsonian officials, and civilians idled around with their small plates, making frequent visits to the open—and neatly-stocked—bar. (I don't cover many events with free-flowing 12-year-old Macallan.) The music was almost as heterogeneous: I walked in to the beats of a daishiki-clad African drum group; a few minutes later the soundtrack had changed to a strolling fiddler.

Kalpen Modi, the White House staffer who is better known as the actor Kal Penn, arrived shortly after 9 p.m. and was drawn into a conversation about shuttling between Washington and Hollywood—he took leave last year to film the third entry in the Harold and Kumar series—before he could reach the bar. But Modi was there in his capacity as liaison between the Obama administration and the film industry. More were on the lookout for the high-wattage guests promised by Film Forward's press materials: Forrest Whittaker, Ed Norton, and Robert Redford. (It was a Sundance event, after all.)

They didn't show. The Broadway actor Tommy Tune did, tall and spindly in a white suit and charcoal-tinted Wayfarers.

Most people I talked to had seen Winter's Bone. Though not a box-office smash last year, it was one of the more previously accessible choices at Film Forward. That didn't quench anyone's excitement.

"It got four Oscar nominations, you know," gushed Terri Moreland, a lobbyist for a California alternative-energy company. "I'm from southern Illinois. I understand people in those areas do what they can to get by." (For the uninitiated, Winter's Bone deals with poverty and methamphetamine addiction in the Ozarks.)

The speechifying last night was a round of self-congratulations and mutual admiration. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough bragged that "one of the great pleasures of my life is to tell people I work in a castle." Clough introduced George Stevens Jr., the American Film Institute founder who produces the television broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors.

"Is Rocco Landesman here?" he asked in search of the National Endowment for the Arts chairman. "No? We’d certainly want him to take a bow if he were."

Kerry Washington was back for the evening, having changed into a black number with sheer shoulders. She gave the final remarks: "It is officially my duty as a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities to tell you to eat, drink, and be merry."

Like a dutiful citizen, I went back to the bar.

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