Report from Sundance: Palestinian refugees, wine-swilling endurance swimmers, and Lil Wayne


PARK CITY, UTAH—Well, it’s Sunday afternoon and I just left my 13th film: Amreeka from writer/director Cherian Dabis (Make a Wish), which is a very strong entry in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Amreeka features two strong performances from the two lead actresses: Nisreen Faour and Hiam Abbass play sisters coming together for the first time in over 15 years. Raghda (Abbass) has been living in rural Illinois, while Muna (Faour) has just come from Palestine with her young son, seeking to escape the hostilities. Muna is an educated woman but is reduced to working at a local White Castle restaurant—all the while telling her family she works at a nearby bank. Adapting to the American lifestyle and culture is a challenge for Muna, trying to figure out what to do next with her life and what is best for her son, who quickly becomes a target for bullies. The film plays it straight but effectively portrays the differences between the two cultures, while never succumbing to to clichés.

Another strong film, in the World Cinema Documentary section, Big River Man features one of the most fascinating character studies here at Sundance. Martin Strel is an overweight, middle-aged man from Slovenia who drinks two bottles of wine and sleeps about four hours a day; he’s a local celebrity because he has a few world records in endurance swimming under his belt (or under his trunks, as it were). He’s swam the length of the Mississippi River and the Yangtze River but now decides he wants to swim with the crocodiles in the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon River. The film is narrated by Strel’s son, who serves as his father’s publicist and expedition leader. As the 66-day, 3,000-mile swim—lead navigator Matthew Mohlke hails from Wisconsin but wears a Minnesota Twins hat—nears its end, Strel’s son begins to question his father’s mental stability and the film begins to resemble Apocalypse Now. With many laugh-out-loud moments, Big River Man also raises some serious questions about fame and health.

Other films of note have included Adam Bhala Lough’s voyeuristic take on rap sensation Dwayne Carter, better known as “Lil Wayne,” in The Carter. The film focuses on Carter’s creative process, which involves the constant smoking of weed and consumption of what Carter calls his “syrup.” While few would agree with everything that comes out of Carter’s mouth, he is a man with an extraordinary vision who has become an important hip-hop figure of undeniable importance. In one memorable scene, Carter’s 10-year-old daughter is asked by Lough, “What do you like best about your dad?” She replies, “When he’s with me.”

I haven’t walked out of any films yet, but some that I would consider “bottom of the barrel” films have included Moon, a convoluted and generic sci-fi film from director Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie—though it features a good performance by Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey in the HAL role; The Killing Room, which has a shockingly effective jolt within the first 20 minutes but then quickly plummets downhill; and I’m still undecided about the new Broken Lizard comedy The Slammin’ Salmon, which didn’t end until close to 1 a.m. due to a busted light bulb in the video projector.

And now: onward! So many movies, so little time.

Jim Brunzell III ( writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.