Sundance Diary, volume two: 'Beasts' and 'Daughters'


In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first entry here.

The surprise hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival was Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, which not only has the power to hypnotize but to also enlighten with its striking cinematography, fantastical special effects (wonderfully designed by San Francisco's own Academy of Art University), and a truly guttural performance by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. She plays Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old searching to understand a world post-Katrina, post-race, and more importantly post-childhood.

Combining David Gordon Green's George Washington (2001), Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2008), and most appropriately Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a genuinely haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings for maximum understanding. But even though it won both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Excellence in Cinematography Award at this year's festival, will Beasts ultimately be able to find an audience outside of the festival?

As it happens, Daughters of the Dust was restored for this year's festival (and correctly color timed for the first time ever!) This visual poem exploring South Carolina's coastal Gullah culture is as modern, historical, profound, and universal as Jane Campion's The Piano (1993) and Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. Yet for some reason, the film did not find a very large audience. With Sundance holding a 30-plus minute Q&A with Dash herself following the screening, many historical and symbolic details were explored — but more importantly, you were able to just sit with the film.

When I was in college, Daughters was truly was one of the most difficult movies for me to keep up with (I fell asleep multiple times, couldn't understand the character's accents, etc.) Seeing it again for its 20th anniversary, the film feels more than ever like a revelatory example of visual narrative cinema: images and sounds sweep the viewer into a place where they can slow down and absorb the kind of filmmaking that can resonate in your soul.

Up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks goes doc-wild in his third Sundance Diary.