Sundance movies explore the terrifying impact of authority on human behaviour

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Participating movies in the Sundance film festival are usually made on shoestring budgets and often by first-time directors, but they are rich in their substance, bold in their themes and unique in their subjects. This year, movies have touched on controversial issues such as nature vs nurture (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), homosexuality (I am Michael, D Train), teens in pornography (Hot Girls Wanted), religious cults (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and more. One topic that grabbed my attention was the perplexing transformative impact of authority on human mind and behaviour.

My interest in the topic sparked when I saw the Israeli documentary “Censored Voices”, which exposes atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers during the 6-day war in 1967, which ended with the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The disturbing revelations were made by soldiers from the left-leaning Kibbutzim in interviews conducted with them by renown author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira, 10-12 days after the conclusion of the war. This is the first time that the Israeli army consented to release them.

While the western world was praising their heroism for defeating the “monstrous” Arab armies with an astonishing speed, the Israeli soldiers were busy murdering Arab civilians and war prisoners and uprooting villagers from their homes and creating a refugee crisis in the Middle East. One of the interviewees says: “We were told not to show mercy, and to kill as many Arabs as we can.” So they did, shooting at soldiers and civilians alike. “We saw people walking in Sinai; they were not running, so we shot them. We could see them falling, but they didn’t run. So we killed them all,” another soldier confesses.

The first moral shock hit these soldiers when they met the Egyptian captives. “They were just kids. They kneeled down kissing our feet and begging for water. They were not the monsters we had imagined. Suddenly, we started to feel bad for them, but at the same time I thought that they would’ve done the same to us, had they been in our position,” the soldier says. He also reveals that Egyptian prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before they were executed and buried in the desert.

Another interviewee says that he witnessed a paratroopers’ battalion apprehending the men in one convoy of Syrian villagers, who were forced out of the Golan Heights to Syria, and executed them, leaving the women and children with their heavy chattel and domestic animals. The Palestinians in the West Bank were not spared either. The soldiers killed anyone who dared pop his head from a window or a roof top. “I said to myself ‘they are civilians, should we kill them or not? I didn’t think much about it. Just kill! Kill anyone your eyes could see,” the soldier says.

The interviewees sounded so traumatised by their own actions, that they compared their behaviour to the Nazis, who drove the Jews out of their homes to death camps. “We are not killers, but the war turned us all into killers,” laments one soldier. Interestingly though, the film’s director, Mor Loushai, firmly rejects this comparison when I speak to her, insisting that, unlike the Nazis, Israeli soldiers feel the pain of the other side. And when I suggested to her that the Israeli soldiers were acting then in the way that Islamic State (IS) fighters do now, she was loath to compare the two. Admittedly, unlike the Israeli soldiers, IS members gloat about their crimes. But that makes no difference to the victims; who are either dead or refugees. “War corrupts the human soul,” Loushai concedes. “But you must know that our soldiers had no choice and were fighting to defend their homeland from the attacking Arab armies.”

The truth is that each side in every conflict believes that they are just in their deeds. Do the Israeli soldiers possess higher innate moral codes than the rest of humanity or are they just as flawed as everybody else?

This question was tackled in two other Sundance’s movies: Michael Almereyda’s “The Experimenter,” and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Both movies are based on real scientific experiments conducted in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s respectively.

“The Experimenter,” tells the story of a Jewish psychologist, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who devises an experiment in

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Yale university in order to answer the question of whether we could call the Nazi soldiers, who were following orders, accomplices in the Holocaust?

There are three participants in Milgram’s experiment: the Experimenter (the authority figure), the Teacher (the volunteering subject) and the Learner (a confederate, who informs the subject that he has a heart condition). The Teacher punishes the Learner, who sits in an adjacent room, with an electric shock every time he fails to answer a question correctly.  The intensity of the electric shocks increases gradually to 450 volts (the death blow) until the Learner provides the right answer. The Experimenter instructs the Teacher to proceed in fulfilling his role in the experiment in spite of the Learner’s screams of agony and pleading for mercy. Astonishingly, 65% of the subjects continued to electrocute the Learner until the death shock, albeit they did express their dismay at the experiment. The rest didn’t stop before the 300 volts shock, which inflicts excruciating pain. Furthermore, not a single one of them deigned to check on the Learner’s well-being before they had left.

Similar results of the same experiment were observed in different countries. All subjects, regardless of race, creed or gender, acted the same way, prompting Milgram to conclude that human nature can’t be relied on to prevent cruelty and immoral behaviour, when it’s instructed by a corrupt authority. The majority of people are willing to carry out actions, incompatible with their principles or morality, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which features a psychological experiment headed by Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), goes a step further in exploring the impact of Authority on human behaviour in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

Twenty-four male students are selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in the prison. The guards are provided with actual prison guards uniforms, wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact with the prisoners, who wear uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle, and their names are substituted by numbers, which are sewn on their uniforms.

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

From the first day of the experiment, the guards, who are granted absolute power, act callously towards the prisoners. And when the prisoners rebel, the guards respond  sadistically with varied forms of psychological torture and humiliating practices, such as spraying prisoners with a fire extinguisher, depriving them of their meals, forcing them to urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cell, and then placing the bucket next to their dinner table, taking away their mattresses from their cells, leaving them to sleep on concrete, arbitrarily locking them in a solitary confinement and stripping off their clothes in order to degrade them. The prisoners react in three ways: resistance, total collapse or complete obedience, but all express their willingness to forfeit their pay in order to leave. Matters deteriorate to such an extent, the experiment has to be halted after 6 days. Disturbingly, the guards are disappointed.

At the end of the movie, a prisoner asks one of the guards: “Why did you act like an asshole?”. The guard replies: “I was doing my job, and I wanted to experiment with it, and see how far can I go. I am sure you would’ve done the same. Authority changes you.” And that was what the scientists confirmed: it seems that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behaviour.

Interestingly, one of the Israeli soldiers in “Censored Voices” reveals that the authority that the war has bestowed upon him over his Arab victims filled him with a sense of invincibility, and he derived joy from harassing and humiliating them. He was surprised by their total obedience even when they were ordered to leave their own homes and do the most degrading acts, adding that the Jews also submitted to the Nazis when they led them to the death camps.

This soldier was as young as the volunteering students in the Stanford Prison experiment. Is he a war criminal, or a victim of the situation or is he just obeying the commands of his superiors? And is he different  from a Nazi soldier or an ISIS terrorist or the infamous American Sniper or a Syrian soldier who murders his own people in order to save the throne of his president?

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Whiplash wins Audience and Grand Jury awards at Sundance Film Festival

It opened the 30th Sundance Film Festival 10 days ago and tonight Whiplash has scooped both the US dramatic Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award. Damien Ghazelle’s feature film debut made a splash when it was premiered and received critical acclaim. Based on a short film with the same title, which Ghazelle screened in Sundance last year, Whiplash tells the story of a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) in pursuit of excellence and his dealing with his brutal, unforgiving instructor (J.K. Simmons).

The special jury prizes for US documentaries went to Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s Rich Hill, while Michael Rossato-Bennett’s Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory took the audience award in the same category.

The World Cinema grand jury prizes were awarded to the Chilean revenge thriller, Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’s To Kill a Man and to the Syrian civil war documentary, Talal Derki’s Return to Homs. Meanwhile, Ethiopian females oppression drama, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s Difret, which was exec produced by Angelina Jolie, and Israeli documentary about a Palestinian informant, Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince, won the Audience awards for international features.

The prizes were announced at a ceremony co-hosted by Nick Offerman and his wife Megan Mullally in Park City. The 2014 Sundance Film Festival wraps tomorrow, Sunday 28th January.

What is buzzing in the 30th Sundance Film Festival?

Every year, tens of thousands of filmmakers, film lovers, buyers, executives and party goers flock to Park City in Utah, braving the subzero temperature, to attend the Sundance Film Festival, which has become the epicentre of independent cinema since it was founded 30 years ago by Robert Redford in order to give a platform for unknown filmmakers to show and promote their movies.

In its early years the festival was small and intimate. Only hardcore film fans attended and feasted on substance movies, that never saw the light of day after the festival. But that changed in 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape screened there to critical acclaim, and then was picked up by movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, and turned a hefty profit in the box office.

The commercial success of Sex, Lies and Videotape piqued Hollywood’s attention. Since then, executives and buyers flocked to Park City every January to sift through the festival loot of movies made for a fraction of the cost of studios productions and turned them into profitable commodities and elevated their unknown makers to stardom. Some of the lucky ones are now the leaders of the film business, such as The Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell, and many more. But the sobering reality is that those are a minority; a minority that seems to be shrinking every year.


This year, nearly 300 films and documentaries have been screened in the festival. However, the movies that are getting the buzz and attention are not the unknowns and obscure, but rather the star-studded ones, that audiences jostle and shove to see and the media clammer to review and interview their stars.

The festival opened with Whiplash,  starring Miles Teller as a drum student at a New York music conservatory where the reigning teaching god is a sadistic purist named Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Directed by Damien Gazelle, the film made a splash at the festival due to his impressive direction, and was napped by Sony Classics.

The heat of Whiplash fizzled quickly, prompting festival goers to seek inspiration somewhere else, and they found it in Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. The movie charts the life of a Texan boy from the age of 7 to 18.

Meanwhile, previously hyped movies such as Maya Forbes’ dramedy Infinity Polar Bear, which tells the story of a bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo) raising two young girls with his wife (Zoe Saldana) and  Frank, which features invisible Michael Fassbender playing a tensely charismatic leader of an indie rock group who never takes off his large fake plaster head. Both films stand out for the performances of their stars, failed to attain universal praise.

The former Twilight star, Kristen Stewart, has also received mixed reviews for playing a tough prison guard who forms a friendship with an inmate in Camp X-ray. The problem is not really in her delivery but with the story, which is utterly focused on the two characters’ interaction, leaving little time to explore their environment, rendering its Guantanamo setting redundant.

Sundance veteran Lynn Shelton came back with a commercial film, Laggies, which tells the story of 28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley) who is trying to find meaning in her life. Another veteran, Gregg Araki brought his 9th Sundance film, A White Bird in Blizzard, which follows teenage Kat (Shailene Woodley) as she comes of age amidst the disappearance of her disturbed trainwreck of a mother (Eva Green). Ira Sachs was also there with Love is Strange,  which enjoyed a warm reception.

Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here was another headline-grabbing film, not for its merit but for its crowd financing on the Kickstarter website.  Some of the donors fans showed up at the premiere, demanding the promised tickets. Braff, himself, failed to thank his supporters in his opening speech. Reportedly, he flew to Park City from New York in first class. Having sold his movie, he was probably able to afford a first class ticket back home.

In contrast, Anne Hathaway (Song One) and Brit Steve Coogan (A Trip to Italy) were cramped with us in the economy section of a sold-out flight back to LA.  Their attendance had helped their movies to get noticed, but not find a buyer.

The documentaries fared slightly better. Although celebrities’ movies such as Fed Up from celebrity broadcaster Katie Couric grabbed the headlines, there were others that drew audiences solely for their merit and substance, such as Return To Homs, a harrowing tale of a young Syrian, a goalkeeper who turns into a freedom fighter. The director Talal Derki takes us inside the battle, where we witness a city being leveled to the ground and civilians being murdered arbitrarily. It feels like a Hollywood thriller, but it’s real.

Unfortunately, the press screening of Return to Homs was not a busy one. The Sundancers no doubt were probably lining up for hours in the freezing cold longing to see one of the star-studded pictures.

Unlike previous years, when bidding wars over movies have erupted among buyers, there has been a dearth of acquisitions this year and the pay was the lowest in Sundance’s history -less than $3 million. Furthermore, all the purchased movies featured stars in their cast.

It hasn’t been a completely a lost battle for obscure filmmakers. A vanguard of VOD outlets, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, has invaded Park City seeking to enrich their online libraries.  However, their pay is so humiliatingly meager, one filmmaker moaned that he wouldn’t be able to afford his rent with this money.

Sundance Film Festival hasn’t discovered  a Tarantino or a Soderberg this year, leaving experts scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Some blamed it on the dizzying number of movies and others on lack of originality. Whatever the reason, hundreds of hopeful filmmakers will be leaving empty-handed and their movies will probably be forgotten. Perhaps, the lesson is that quality on its own doesn’t sell, you must have a hook in your movie, in order to break through the gigantic clutter. Otherwise you better feature a star to stand by you on the red carpet, even in the mecca of independent film.