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Anarchy in Utah? Scruffy Slamdance Fest Favors First-Time Filmmakers

By Sarah Jo Marks

When the Slamdance Film Festival debuted in 1995, there were 12 features and 12 shorts programmed out of a mere 40 submissions. A motley group of writers, directors and producers joined forces to create what is now one of the hottest destinations in Park City, Utah. Neighboring the renowned Sundance Film Festival, Slamdance created a new outlet for low-budget, high-quality filmmaking and grew a community for these filmmakers in the process. While the festival has moved venues and increased submissions (there were 2,800 this year), its mission statement has stayed true: "By filmmakers, for filmmakers."

The 9th annual Slamdance Film Festival (January 18-25) was a scruffy contrast to its well-heeled counterpart. While Sundancers waited in line for up to two hours to see a film, Slamdancers packed the screenings, sitting on the floor and laying in front of the screen with heads on backpacks. Doc lovers flooded the opening-night film, Kenneth Bowser, Rachel Talbot and Josh Braun's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a sort of post-Kid Stays in the Picture look at Hollywood in the '70s. Based on the book by Peter Biskind and narrated by William H. Macy, this film—which aired on TRIO last month—is packed with great stories, music and clips.

Despite its edgy appearance, Slamdance isn't all about anarchy, but it can't hurt to be a little rough around the edges either. The doc slate, including several special screenings and three shorts hidden among the short blocks, covered everything from a response to September 11, 2001(Frances Anderson's Civilian Casualties: Fragments from the War on Terror) to the social impact of Supermax prisons (Joshua Moises' Supermax Wisconsin). Festival president and co-founder Peter Baxter talked about the programming of the competition films and what programmers really look for: "These docs had small budgets, were true labors of love and were done over longer amounts of time." They were also by first-time filmmakers with no distribution. It's really the first-time filmmakers that make up the community that is Slamdance.

Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields set out to make the anti-Behind the Music documentary about the seminal punk band the Ramones. Penelope Spheeris, known for her Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, was on hand to introduce End of the Century, the almost complete doc detailing the rise and fall of the Ramones. Told through in-depth interviews, archival footage, radio interviews, frontman Joey Ramone's quotes and loads of great concert footage, the film holds the viewer in a headlock. End of the Century is an important piece of music history, and unlike most fan films, it is honest and open-hearted in its telling. These filmmakers' clear vision even extended to the marketing of the film. When asked about Sundance, they astutely answered, "We actually didn't send it to Sundance; we only sent it here."

There was not a dry eye in the house for Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce's moving Missing Peace. This Audience Award winner tells the story of Ingrid Betancourt, a political figure in the fight for freedom within the corrupt Columbian government. The filmmakers had been planning to follow Betancourt on her campaign trail, only to discover that she had been kidnapped. With the production ready to head for Columbia, the women went anyway and followed Ingrid's husband, Juan Carlos, and her mother as they campaigned through Columbia with a cardboard cutout of Ingrid. Even with her disappearance, Betancourt still took 32 percent of the vote. While a proof-of-life video was released five months after she was taken captive, Ingrid is still missing to this day. Juan Carlos journeyed to Park City to help raise awareness of his wife's absence, and the corruption of the Columbian government, still carrying her cardboard cutout.

Long Gone, David Eberhardt and Jack Cahill's beautifully shot doc about life as a tramp puts the viewer on a train-ride across the United States. The film came out on top with two awards, the Kodak Vision Award for Best Cinematography and the Best Documentary Award. The filmmakers were both shooting photo books and riding trains when they met seven years ago and set out to make the film. They followed several "hobos," exploring their pasts, their wants for the future, drug and alcohol addiction and the problems associated with ending up on America's Most Wanted. The rambling shots of trains and expansive landscapes helped to warm the film, and were accentuated by original songs from Tom Waits.

Docs have been steadily inching into the limelight at Slamdance, with Mark Moskowitz' Stone Reader winning the Special Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in 2002 and Montieth McCollum's Hybrid taking home the Grand Jury Prize in 2001. It's no surprise that three out of the four special screenings this year were documentaries. With its grassroots, alternative appeal, Slamdance is no longer second choice for many filmmakers; it's a jumping-off point. "It's the spirit of the filmmaking that is a perfect fit with Slamdance," Baxter maintains.


Sarah Jo Marks is a producer's rep and consultant.