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Festival Focus: Sundance Film Festival

By Sarah Jo Marks

From Lauren Greenfield's Thin. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There was more complaining than I could remember at the 2006 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Along with a general malaise, audiences had a pretty bad attitude about the films this year. And to be honest, there wasn't that much stuff that rocked this writer's world. But here are a few things that did.

Waking up at 7:00 in the morning to get to an 8:30 screening on the first day of the festival is becoming a tradition for me. This year it was for the Documentary Shorts program, the highlight of the bunch being the shortest film in the collection (five minutes): Undressing My Mother by Ken Wardrop. The film is a beautiful and loving portrait of the filmmaker's mother and features vibrant nude photography coupled with an aging woman's voiceover that is both tender and poignant.

Then there was Thin, the new doc directed by prominent youth culture photographer Lauren Greenfield and produced by RJ Cutler, Amanda Micheli and Ted Skillman. One in seven young American women has an eating disorder. Thin goes inside a Florida rehabilitation center to reveal the lives and psychoses of several young women with eating disorders. The film is compelling, as the viewer truly wants these women to get well and be healthy again. According to the press notes, 10 to 14 percent of people with anorexia will die from the illness; watching the film makes me think that's a low number. Thin is an incredibly bleak and unnerving film, but at the same time it shows compassion for these struggling women.

Nathanial Hornblowr (aka Adam Yauch, aka MCA--one of the threesome that makes up the Beastie Boys) is at it again with the new Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That! And the film is awesome. The Beastie Boys handed out video cameras to 50 fans to shoot the entire concert, at New York City 's Madison Square Garden. The old adage "Whatever you do, just keep shooting" is put into play, and the energetic concert is captured from 50 perspectives.

The film starts with the "shooters" getting their pep talk before going to their assigned seats that are spread out all across the Garden. Everyone is pumped. Seeing the concert through the eyes of the fans is exhilarating and at times both funny and even a little over the top--is it cool to keep shooting when you take a bathroom break, buy a beer or try to get backstage access? But it's this stuff that breaks up the concert, adds character and let's the "shooters" show a little extra creativity. The Beastie Boys perform songs that span their 20-year career. The film uses great effects that make viewers feel as if they are there, including shots with all 50 cameras going at once. And with the sound turned up and the base thumpin', it's an intense musical and visual treat.

What's a film festival without a couple of panels? "Podcasting, Vlogging & the Freedom of Speech" panelists included Susan Buice of the indie film Four Eyed Monsters, explicit podcaster Soccergirl and Mika Salmi of Atom Films; it was moderated by Jason Calacanis, CEO of Weblogs, Inc. The most interesting thing conveyed at the panel was the claim that people are ready for downloads like never before--the content is there, iPod and other media players bring in portability and more and more people have broadband. Plus, this new media is getting easier and easier to use, allowing independent artists to keep creating, promoting and selling their own independent media.

This is stuff we have heard before. But considering that the Four Eyed Monsters crew created its own audience of over 50,000 viewers per episode using podcasts and, this is pretty phenomenal and certainly something that can be deployed by independent nonfiction and fiction filmmakers everywhere.

When I read in the festival program that there was a documentary about global warming starring former future president of the United States, Al Gore, I figured An Inconvenient Truth (Laurie David, Lawrence Bender, Scott Burns, prods.) was the movie for me. And if you have to make a movie that features Gore delivering a lecture, then the film couldn't have been made more gracefully and powerfully than this. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim's foray into the world of global warming is stunning. It starts out simply enough, with Gore's voice warming the audience in an ingeniously directed voiceover. The film's not an easy sell, but when you get into it, it's actually quite moving and even more anger-inducing than sister Sundance doc Who Killed the Electric Car? (Chris Paine, dir.; Jessie Deeter, prod.). The only thing I regret is seeing An Inconvenient Truth at the press screening; at the public screenings Gore was on hand for the Q&A sessions.

Saving the best for last, I hit a midnight movie the night before my flight home. I told myself, "No more midnight movies," but I'm glad I made the exception for the winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize in Documentary, In the Pit by Juan Carlos Rulfo. The documentary tells the story of a second level being built atop of an already existing freeway in Mexico. It is beautifully shot on Super-16, 35mm and DV and includes time-lapse photography and music that is completely composed of 36 sampled construction sounds by Leo Heiblum. When it is strung together through the film, it sings of hope, movement and change.

On the way out of the theater I noticed the poster for In the Pit with the caption, "The pit is the pre-text; what we encounter is life." This could be said about a lot of films--and certainly about attending film festivals and seeing films come to life on the big screen in front of audiences. I only wish the audiences were a little more excited about it this time around.


Sarah Jo Marks is a contributing editor to Documentary magazine; she can be reached at