April 1, 1991

1991 Sundance Film Festival

Barbara Kopple's success with American Dream in this year 's Sundance Film Festival documentary competition can only be described as a landslide victory. She won Best Filmmaker, the Audience Award, and shared Best Documentary with Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning.

Five years in the making, and a million-dollar budget, American Dream follows the difficult decisions that workers and union leaders are forced to make in the one-company town of Austin, Minnesota when Hormel, a meat-packing company, drastically cuts its workers' wages.

As an exploration of the effects of economic decline in America's industrial heartland, it would be hard to find a stronger condemnation of corporate greed in the Reagan era. Forced to question their loyalty to the paternalistic Hormel, the workers also have to re­ evaluate the work ethic and their belief in the American dream. Made in the same close, observational style of Kopple's earlier Harlan County USA, there is no narration to explain the unfolding events, which makes the sickening realization of the union's "damned-if-you-do-damned­ if-you-don't" position even more i m me­ diate and hard for the viewer to bear.

The Sundance jury received American Dream as a strong social documentary, a worthy successor to Harlan County USA (which was elected to the National Film Registry, the official badge of a "classic"). And by splitting the Best Documentary award with Paris Is Burning, perhaps it was also recognizing Livingston's film as one that people will come to look at in time as a model of another genre, ethnographic film. The subject of Paris Is Burning is voguing in a black a nd Latino gay community in Harlem. (See feature.)

Livingston represents the voguing com mu nity as part of a larger cultural identity: she tracks between inside and outside, between the experience of being black, homosexual or transsexual and the wider context of American culture that values white heterosexuals and the nuclear family. She juxtaposes her subjects' dreams of becoming famous models with reality (a trip to a Ford Modeling Agency audition at Bloomingdales). What emerges is a commentary on the cultural hegemony of American consumer culture. Livingston works hard not to sensationalize or ridicule a group which, because of its marginality, would be an easy target.

Unfortunately, this sensibility is missing in Legends (Ilana Bar-Din, 1991). The subject is a Las Vegas cabaret show, Legends, in which impersonators of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Judy Garland bring back the dead and legend­ary. Legends offers a wonderful opportunity to look at what it is about American culture that can not let the dead stay dead, that has to iconize the icon, make the symbol hyperreal. But instead of giving us an insight into why a show like Legends exists, the filmmakers pluck the subjects out of context and the net result is a few laughs at the expense of people who we never really get to know.

By contrast, a work that celebrates its subjects and treats them with respect and sensitivity is Absolutely Positive, the latest from ethnographic filmmaker Peter Adair. In the opening sequences, Adair explains that making movies has been a way for him to explore subjects of personal interest—and an expensive form of therapy. He introduces Absolutely Positive as an exploration of his own and others' experience of testing HIV-positive. Adair's wry, and at times ironic, humor is a surprising but effective counterpoint to the sorrow surrounding AIDS ("The nice thing about having a serious disease is that it's OK to say anything you want and people put up with it."). Absolutely Positive is more than a n "AIDS movie." The interviewees express their discoveries around mortality ("The disclosure that one is HIV-positive is what I would consider quintessential bad news..."), and guilt ("My daughter's a born-again Christian and she saw us as being part of the Plague...") in ways that extend to areas of human experience outside of AIDS.

Another personal document to screen at Sundance was Thank You and Good Night (Jan Oxenberg, 1991). Funny, quirky, and almost vaudevillian, this film is about the death of the filmmaker's grandmother, and an exploration of death in general. Scenes from home movies are mixed with contemporary footage of the filmmaker's family, interviews with grandma, and scripted sequences with actors. The central figure, however, is Scowling]an, a cardboard cut-out of the filmmaker as a child. She is the conduit through which we learn about grandma: in fact, we learn more about the filmmaker than anyone else since it is her memories, told through a somewhat tongue-in-cheek narration, that form the substance of the film. As a comic device, Scowling Jan works through its irreverent juxtaposition to a "grave" subject. And as a device to explore memories out of childhood, the cardboard cut-out is novel, but I felt that the child remained undiscovered, literally a two-dimensional silhouette not brought to life.

Like the majority of the documentaries shown at Sundance, Thank You and Good Night was of a high production value. Probably the most polished film in the competition was Ric Burns' Coney Island, which consists almost entirely of archival footage and photographs. Coney Island rakes quotes from Maxim Gorky and Reginald Wright Kauffman, among others, who saw "Sin City" in its heyday, and weaves them together with astonishingly beautiful images to make a smoothly-crafted document of another time. Totally conventional in form, and very much a product for the PBS American Experience series, Coney Island is a luscious example of the archival genre of filmmaking. But documentarians who make reconstructions of the past are faced with similar problems as those of ethnographic filmmakers: in representing this other culture (one separated in time rather than in space), how do you acknowledge your own cultural (temporal) bias? Coney Island wears the mantle of historical authority, but the American Experience series is a celebration of American culture made at a time when much political capital has been made of "a thousand points of light" and the "multicultural patchwork quilt." Does this lip service to multiculturalism simply tem pt the producers in this series to gloss over the ugly ruptures in the fabric of American culture? In terms of race relations, Coney Island was no exception of its time. In the words of documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne (jury member for the documentary competition): "Coney Island tends to see the past with rose-colored—no, white-colored spectacles. It romanticizes the melting pot theory of America and ignores the real racial hostilities of Coney Island's past. In fact, the film glorifies the democracy of Coney Island, saying that everyone could go there, but that wasn't true."

The Sundance Film Festival is one of very few festivals that highlights documentary. The fifteen works selected for the competition (out of about 150) are given equal footing, and equal screening time/facilities, alongside the fifteen narratives. Alberto Garcia, the festival's Competition Director, expressed Sundance's commitment to documentary and their determination not to ghettoized documentaries at the festival. "But, each year," he added, "you wonder how you are going to get people to come and see documentaries. "

 

Marinella Nicolson is a freelance writer living in New York and is enrolled in the Ethnographic Film and Video Program at NYU.

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