Sundance Blogs: 'Everything Strange and New' and 'La Mission'

Susan Gerhard January 22, 2009

Susan Gerhard, Park City, Thursday, January 22: The art and practice of film festival travel is a curious one. Wake up in a different city, walk down different streets, eat different foods, talk to different people, step into darkened rooms to watch movies about…. people in different cities, walking down different streets, eating different foods and talking to different people. For professionals who do this monthly or weekly—programmers, a few journalists—it’s like trying a new slope: same sport, different bumps. But for fans and cinephiles who make the treks, wait in the lines, or just hang out sighting celebs in perhaps one or two cities in their lifetime, it’s a bizarre, intense way to experience, or perhaps over-experience, life.

Oakland filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw on the previously mentioned "New Fresh" panel, whose film title, Everything Strange and New, could be applied to so much in life and is particularly apt when thinking about what motivates continent hopping for film festivals, said (this is not a paraphrase or a quote, but a subjective interpretation) what he actually likes about film watched in theaters as opposed to other media viewed in other spaces—say, galleries, museums, night clubs or the sides of buildings—is that the theater removes context. You are alone in the dark with the characters on screen. (In theory. Blackberrys don’t have an Off button, apparently.) I agree that this is, generally, the plan. But at festivals, there is context, and that’s the attraction of many of them. If all the gears are working, there is not only "buzz," but also a large amount of goodwill coming from audiences who’ve waited in long lines, endured certain hardships one endures in densely populated places, weathered drops in temperature and ego slights, slotted themselves into a tiny seat and want/need to believe it was all worth it. If the film shows promise, audiences under these conditions will, it’s often believed, jump out of their seats with joy.

"La Mission" in the mountains

A few minutes before the Sundance screening of La Mission at the Library, I spotted Peter and Benjamin Bratt welcoming moviegoers and taking their last breaths of cold air on the sidewalk before walking inside. Peter walked a few steps away, stood by himself looking up into the direction of the mountain, rolled his hands over his head and just seemed to be taking it all in. He did not appear ready to breathe it all out again On the day after a new American president lifted the great expectations of a depressed population onto his shoulders, the charismatic, community-building Bratt—who not only filmed in the Mission, but works at a nonprofit there—was carrying the voices of a down-but-not-out neighborhood into an arena that can run hot and cold. And in Park City, the temperature could change in an instant. Personally, as a neighbor to the Mission myself, just a few degrees of separation away from the world Peter Bratt inhabits, I wasn’t sure how it would all go down. But when the lights came up at film’s end to a standing ovation, and a comment of "This is not a movie, this is a masterpiece," from a bubbling-over man near the front, I got a chance to exhale, too. As Peter welcomed a cast that ranged from his brother, Benjamin Bratt, to amateur-actor teens from the Mission, it was impossible for me to put on an objective critic’s hat and not be happy for them. I wouldn’t have dared to even try.

[Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you want to know nothing about the film’s plot points before seeing it.]

Low-riders, Aztec dancers, corner stores, makeshift sidewalk memorials with candles and flowers, long skinny Victorian hallways leading to kitchens and living rooms painted bold, bright colors—and lots of great Latin, hip hop and soul music, it was Mission flag-waving all-points-alert entertainment as well as an earnest excavation of an issue—the impact of violence—that dominates life in that neighborhood.

The film had been in the Bratt pipeline for more than a decade, apparently, from the time, the brothers did research at a Low Rider expo at the Cow Palace in the mid ’90s and Benjamin bought a 1964 Impala on the spot. And while it wasn’t an easy sell to H-wood funders, who thought Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars and Will and Grace on the tube meant there wasn’t need for a story featuring a gay Latin man in the Mission in the year 2008, they stood by their story. Benjamin Bratt’s voice broke as he reacted to the overwhelming warmth in the room, saying, "Being here today has reminded me that our stories are worth being told."