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1999 Sundance Film Festival

By Tom White

A red-and-blue movie poster from 'On the Ropes.'

It's a rare occasion—even in Utah—when a pimp, a porn star, a community activist, a former Vietnam POW, a Tuvan throat singer, an Internet impresario, a Beat Generation icon and an acclaimed violinist all show up in one locale and earn a modicum of celebrityhood to boot. As subjects of a bumper crop of well—received documentaries screened at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, they earned more than their 15 min of fame, while others—Ken Kesey and Nadja Solerno-Sonenberg among them—gained a new legion of fans.

No surprise that the real success story at Sundance was American Movie, the Grand Jury Prize Winner about a group of struggling filmmakers from Milwaukee, produced by a group of struggling filmmakers from Milwaukee. Maybe the post-mod notion of it all appealed to the Jury, but then again perhaps it was the time-honored tradition of struggling and believing, in an off-beat sort of way, that the film conveyed so well-that independent filmmaking is just as much a part of the American dream as anything else. Sundance felt like a community... of course, the cold weather does that sort of thing.

American Movie director Chris Smith spent two years documenting Wisconsinite Mark Borchadt's persistent (some might say "misguided") movie-making ambitions to realize his filmic opus, Northwestern. Borchardt and his friends pursue the impossible dream through thick and thin, shooting in between joblessness and drinking bouts, bad weather and worse scripts. Eventually Borchardt completes Coven, a short horror film that he hopes will sell enough to finance Northwestern. He manages to finish it, and we see the community come out in support at the premiere. In a nice twist, Coven was also screened in Park City during the festival—no word on how many copies were sold.

Michelle LeBrun screened her film Death: A Love Story, a project of IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship program, to legions of teary­ eyed attendees. The film, which chronicles her husband Mel Howard's slow and painful demise from liver cancer, is more uplifting than depressing. Even in the most wrenching moments—LeBrun puts her camera down when she senses that the end is near and audiotapes her husbands's last words—there is real poetry and power in the imagery and music that she, editor Lisa Leeman and composer Miriam Cutler have created here. When Michelle and Mel both surrender to the final passage of an extraordinary journey-one peopled with doctors, spiritual healers, friends and family members-there is, in Mel's words, "the opening of closed spaces of the heart." Death in narrative film is often mawkishly rendered, but here, death is truly a love story.

In Death: A Love Story, Mel's liver transplant ultimately fails. The Kindness of Strangers, screened out of competition, is a deeply felt film about the trauma of organ donation—a subject most people know very little about, unless and until we find ourselves or a loved one in need. Beautifully rendered by veteran editor and IDA member Maro Chermayoff in her directing debut, and executive produced by James Redford, who himself has had two liver transplants, The Kindness of Strangers was produced by the James Redford Institute to raise awareness about the issue. The film was acquired by HBO, and a major outreach and education campaign is being developed to accompany the distribution .

Each year, programmer Heather Rae combines determination, savvy and a lot of travel and phone time to create Sundance's Native Visions section , a part of the festival that receives too little attention in mainstream press, yet has become a significant festival gathering place for indigenous makers. The selections this year ranged from music videos to mini-series. Ways of the Glades, by Leslie Gaines, is an endearing indigenous story-telling music video set in the Everglades; and Smoke Signals director Chris Eyres's music video—Things We Do—features the Lakota band Indigenous. A wonderful experience was also in store for people watching Annie Frazier Henry's recent documentary Singing Our Stories, a poetic and immensely enjoyable consideration of the history and practice of indigenous women's singing traditions. Featured is music by the North Carolina group Ulali, the Blood Nation of Western Canada, the Zuni Ola Maidens and even a kitchen session with Cherokee Rita Coolidge and her sisters. Allan Houser-Hoozous: Lifetime Work of an American Master, by long-time documentarian Phil Lucas, pays homage to the Apache mist through evocation and interviews with family, friends and admirers. Executive produced by Phillip Haozous, the film chronicles Houser's career as an mist through the lens of his Native background. Houser-Haozous was a world-renowned sculptor before his death, and his work is included in collections of major art museums worldwide. Lucas's biography reveals the mist's practice as well as the power of his creations.

On the Ropes, made by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan, follows the struggles of three amateur boxers and their mentor/trainer as they fight to survive in the tough Brooklyn neighborhood that has claimed so many of their peers. Expertly interweaving these four stories, Burstein and Morgan have created not just a sports documentary about winning and losing, but a masterful portrait of contemporary urban life. On the Ropes earned a Special Jury Prize at the festival. The film was preceded by Shooting Stars, a charming short film by Scott Young about an all-senior women's basketball league in San Diego.

Nicole Cattell's Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton earned an Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking. In the film, Detroit resident Tyree Guyton transforms an urban-scarred street into a vibrant work of 311, turning vacant lots and houses into mega-installation pieces and giving most of the residents in this tough inner-city neighborhood the inspiration to create. But other residents prevail upon the city to tear down Heidelberg Street, an action that only empowers Tyree to build it up again.

Barbara Sonnenborn made a film for her late husband, who was killed in the Vietnam War. The IDA Award-winning Regret to Inform tells the story of the widows—both American and Vietnamese—from that devastating conflict, a perspective rarely expressed about any war, much Jess Vietnam. Sonnenborn 's journey to where her husband was killed twenty years earlier is a deeply personal one, yet one taken for the sake of everyone left behind to live with their loss. Sonnenborn earned the Documentary Directing Award, and her cinematographer, Emiko Omori, won the Cinematography Award in Documentary.

IDA members Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders also made a film about Vietnam, Return With Honor, which could be viewed, with Regret to Inform, as a diptych of sorts, albeit a sharply contrasting one. Return With Honor focuses on American POWs who tell their often horrifying stories of being held captive in the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison camp for as long as seven years. The Vietnam government gave Mock and Sanders access to hours of propaganda footage, most of which includes the subjects of the film. The result is an emotionally textured account of survival and courage in unforgiving circumstances. That the film is nearly devoid of commentary on America's most I troubling war since the Civil War may lend the film a disturbingly patriotic sheen. But the film is about survival, not politics; these veterans are not only willing to talk at length about their ordeals, but they lead exemplary lives in spite of, and because of, what they survived.

The internment of Japanese-Americans has been treated in several documentaries, but Emiko Omori's film tells yet another version of the story in a highly effective manner. Beautifully shot and directed (Omori won the Cinematography Award fbr this film as well), the film is anchored by an interview with her sister, who previously had done her best to forget the past. In revisiting internment sites and using archival footage with interviews, Rabbit in the Moon captures the sense of estrangement, betrayal and cultural isolation experienced by the Japanese during the 1940s, both in American culture and in a Japanese-American culture that had to be completely remade after the war.

American Hollow takes viewers to a much mocked and misunderstood territory—Appalachia, where filmmaker Rory Kennedy and cinematographer Nick Doob spent a year with the Bowling family, a 40-strong clan scattered across one of the poorest and most isolated parts of Eastern Kentucky. Kennedy follows different stories throughout the film, capturing the struggles of maintaining home and hearth in a modern society. The result is a complicated profile of an American family. The short film, Taxidermy: The Art of Imitating Life, preceded American Hollow; this black and white piece, directed by Eva Aridjis, presents the process of turning a carcass into a work of art.

Jessica Yu takes viewers to a different kind of museum in The Living Museum, an inspiring portrait of a community of artists who are also residents at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. By profiling a selection of these artists and their work, Yu captures the transformative and affirmative powers of art and creativity while celebrating the humor, humanity and conviction of these artists. Hepa!, Laura Marguiles's animated and live action piece about Afro-Brazilian dance, preceded The Living Museum.

Jon Else's Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle is a departure from his normally political canon (Cadillac Desert; The Day After Trinity). Sing Faster is a backstage view of the San Francisco Opera's production of the Wagner Ring Cycle, as mounted and narrated—for the film audience—by the stagehands. Else actually shot this film in the summer of 1990, and it took him eight years to raise the money to complete it. Needless to say, he was encouraged by the recent technological revolution in filmmaking. "Digital will set us free," he declared in the Q&A. His toil on the rainmaking trail was not in vain however: Sing Faster won the Filmmakers Trophy for Best Documentary.

Speaking in Strings, Paola di Florio's fascinating biography (and an IDA Fiscal Sponsorship project), of world-renowned violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonenberg explores the life of an artist in all the passion, pain and joy that go into making her art and living her life. Di Florio, a childhood friend of Nadja's, captures her triumphs in concert, bouts with depression, her suicide attempt and her re-emergence. Di Florio interviews family members, friends, music teachers, fellow musicians and music critics to develop a complete profile.

Genghis Blues, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary, yoked the unlikely musical genres of the blues and Tuvan throat singing through the person of one Paul Pefla, a blind blues musician who was so smitten by the strange and wondrous sounds picked up one night on his short wave radio that he committed himself to learning the very difficult technique. When Paul was ready to make that long trek to Tuva, a tiny country near Mongolia, filmmakers (and IDA members) Roko and Adrian Belic went along, capturing his triumphant performance in the Tuvan throat-singing competition and the warm reception he received there. Sundance attendees were treated to an enchanting concert by Tuva's most famous singer, Kongar-ol Ondar, at the oldest Catholic church in Utah.

This cross-pollination of cultures and music would have appealed to the heroes of the Beat Generation, the subject of Chuck Workman's The Source. Taking the power troika of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs as the source of much that would blossom and thrive in America's underground culture, Workman assembles a dazzling pastiche of footage from four decades, as well as interviews with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ken Kesey (who attended several screenings at Sundance), Timothy Leary and a host of others. Workman's signature style of quick-cutting is in evidence here, making for an exhausting if exhaustive experience.

It was a pleasure to see experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage taken seriously in a documentary, and it took the Canadians to do it. The film biography Brakhage tracks his career as one of America's most influential avant-garde filmmakers, seamlessly interweaving clips of the films, interviews with family and friends, and archival footage of Brakhage himself holding forth in the '50s and '60s, as experimental film began to make its mark on America's celluloid landscape. Brakhage continues to hold forth, of course, and the film is both entertaining and informative—and a must-see for film history courses.

Lars 1-10, a short film by Sophie Fiennes, provides a primer, courtesy of Danish director Lars von Trier, of the ten rules of filmmaking, as dictated by him and selected European colleagues. Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood, an American Masters production by Michael Epstein, documents the clash of wills between David Selznick, the tyrannical producer, and Alfred Hitchcock, the brilliant director. Epstein meticulously faces the concurrent dissolution of Selznick's hold on Hollywood by his own obtuse behavior and compulsive habits, and the evolution of Hitchcock's mastery of filmmaking.

While the U.S. Constitution was being bandied about in the halls of Congress during the festival, Sundance screened two films that examine fundamental tenets of American democracy. The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords won the Playboy Foundation Freedom of Expression Award. Stanley Nelson's film traces the origins of the African American press back to 1826 and follows, through period stills and interviews with historians and writers, the development of this vital organ of expression, autonomy and truth for the black community over the next 150 years. The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons tells the story of a ballot measure—California's Prop. 187, the so-called "Three Strikes and You're Out" law. Michael J. Moore skillfully balances interviews with proponents and opponents of this law and news footage from the campaign, revealing the virtues—and deficiencies—of the American political system.

Just as politics is an American obsession, so is sex, and Sundance offered two films that drew capacity crowds at every screening. American Pimp, the first documentary from the Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents; Menace to Society), profiles a large assortment of flesh peddlers from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii, all living large and almost all African American. Intercut with scenes from Blaxploitation films from the 1970s, American Pimp merely reinforces the stereotypes these films perpetuated; after a while, it was hard to tell who was a caricature of whom. While educational in its analysis and presentation of pimpology, American Pimp eventually displays a numbing uniformity in its subjects.

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story came into being when director Gough Lewis saw his subject on the Jerry Springer Show talking about her having had sex with 251 men in one day. The resulting film, screened some four years after that historic day, is a fascinating, troubling and ultimately disappointing portrait of a sad and complicated woman. Annabel Chong, née Grace Quen, throughout the film sets out to shatter the stereotype of porn actress as victim, lending her livelihood a dose of feminist philosophy and empowerment politics. The filmmaker goes along, never challenging his subject's views, and coming dangerously close to a complicitous arrangement with her when he interviews her Singaporean mother, knowing that she doesn't know that her Grace is Annabel. It may be a case of the filmmaker getting too close to his subject, for we come out of this long film wanting to know so much more about how Grace become Annabel.

While sex is a timeless obsession, the Internet is a decidedly pre-millennial one. In Home Page, filmmaker Doug Block sets out to discover the Web—its architects and its subculture—and in the process discovers something about himself. His guide, Internet zealot and guru Justin Hall, leads him on that strange path to cyberspace, where communities of misfits and malcontents thrive, offering up their private thoughts for public consumption. Throughout the film, Block talks about his flirtation with the web culture, while intercutting scenes of traditional family life—a Passover seder, a wedding, his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. At the same time, he gets Justin to share on camera what he shares on the web; in the Q&A, Justin admitted that "it was overwhelming to see me talking so much." While Home Page works well on one level as a study of an intriguing subculture of the 1990s, the film is also a fascinating take on the role of the filmmaker vis-à-vis his subject—skeptical, curious and ever cognizant of what lines not to cross. In the end, as Block's wife says to him on camera, "You've come home."