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Festival Watch: Sundance Film Festival

By Diana Rico

A photo composition of a women and the reflection of a sunset on water, from 'Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern.'

Who would have predicted that a seventy-something Iowa farmer­—the subject of a documentary made by his daughter, no less—would emerge as one of the stars of the terminally trendy Sundance Film Festival?

When filmmaker Jeanne Jordan brought her dad, Russ, up for a question-and-answer session after a screening of Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, the audience—already enamored of the film—was moved to a standing ovation. Russ, who emerges as a crusty charmer in the verite work, also took the podium at the awards ceremony, when Troublesome Creek achieved the distinction of being the first documentary ever to win both Sundance's Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

Jordan, who wrote, produced, and directed the film with her husband, cinematographer Steven Ascher, sensitively chronicled the demise of her family's farm in a story that touches on such big themes as aging, the strength possible in families, post-Reagan economics, and real-life heroism and villainy. In Jordan and Ascher's interweaving of clips from old Westerns to heighten the emotional life of their story, they refreshingly push the envelope of the nonfiction form.

Heroes and villains were the subject of a few other of the 16 documentaries in competition at this year's edition of Sundance, which ran from January 18 to 28 in Park City, Utah. The sensationalistic, morbidly fascinating Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (of Brother's Keeper fame), had audiences buzzing after its packed screenings. A disturbing, unevenly structured vérité study of the sexual mutilation and murders of three second-graders in West Memphis, Paradise Lost seems to implicate almost everybody, from the curiously detached dead children's parents to the three teenagers accused of the Satanism-tinged crime.

If everyone's a potential villain in Paradise Lost, Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy's Jane: An Abortion Service shows us heroines in top 1960s-activism form. Jane tells the story of a group of ordinary Chicago women who formed an underground collective to provide access to safe illegal abortions. From 1968 to 1971, members of Jane themselves performed over 12,000 abortions. Jane powerfully conveys the intense feelings experienced by both the abortion practitioners and the frightened clients who came to them when they had nowhere else safe to turn. The film has been protested by anti choice factions who have shown up with bibles at screenings, although none made their way to Park City.

About 10,000 other people, however, did show up on the slopes and in the restaurants of the tiny ski resort town. In every way the festival was bulging at the seams. Some 700 feature-length films and 1.200 shorts were submitted this year, from which 117 films were chosen to be screened. A new section, called American Spectrum, was created, featuring 20 films by first-time directors. A new 200-seat theater at the Yarrow Hotel was added to the screening venues, with a voter-approved 800-seat performing arts complex planned to be constructed in time for the 1997 festival. Media coverage was at an all­ time high, with 500 press people in attendance from all over the world.

A smaller parallel festival, Slamdance '96, which was born last year as a cool guerilla alternative to Sundance, this year had its own screening room, publicity company, catalog, awards, and Web site. Among the 12 films it screened were Mark Wexler and Robert De Maio's Me and My Matchmaker, a personal documentary about Wexler's growingly weird involvement with a professional matchmaker (it won Slamdance audience award), and Jon Boken­ kamp's After Sunset: The Life and Times of the Drive-in Theater, which interweaves standard-issue interviews and archival material with some wonderfully stylized footage of a road trip he and some buddies took in search of the great American drive-in.

Troublesome Creek was not the only first-person documentary at Sundance this year. Steven Bognar's Personal Belongings is a beautifully written, humorous, and moving examination of how his Hungarian-immigrant father's fight in the revolution affected the family he later had in the United States. First-time director Bognar's delicate and imaginative use of the technical aspects of filmmaking could teach a few lessons to some old-time documentarians. Also technically stunning was the visually poetic Halving the Bones, although its content was too thin. Halving the Bones tells filmmaker Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury's story of how she brought her grandmother's bones back from Japan to give to her estranged mother, bringing up issues of family history, ethnic identity, and the truth of memory.

Other works followed established documentary forms, such as the biopic. Kenneth Carlson and Todd Robinson's Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick is an elegantly edited (by Leslie Jones), entertaining, but wholly uncritical profile of the late two-fisted director William Wellman, whose classic works, such as Wings and A Star Is Born, screened in an accompanying retrospective. Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon's Buckminster Puffer: Thinking Out Loud, a solidly researched account of the late, great philosopher/ inventor, bogs down in sentimentality and raises many unanswered questions about "Bucky's" personal life.

The tradition of oral history is alive and well in Tony Buba and Ray Henderson's compelling Struggle in Steel which follows the trail blazed by Eyes on the Prize by examining a specific segment of American racism: that experienced in the steel industry by African-Americans over the last 100- plus years. Struggle in Steel lays down painful story after painful story of discrimination and insult, but gradually a thread of hard-won grassroots victories emerges and grows.

Despite the record-breaking number of shorts submitted this year, fewer nonfiction shorts were screened than in 1995. Standouts included Sherri M. Breyer's The Druden, a stylish, tongue-in-cheek look at the last great Hollywood '50s lounge, which today has become a neo trendy night spot for the likes of David Lynch and Julia Roberts; and Jessica Yu's Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, a rivetingly honest profile of a poet/journalist who lives in an iron lung. Breathing Lessons, which covers everything from sex, depression, and body shame to God, love, and the invisibility of the disabled in our society, boasts some particularly beautiful black-and-white poetic passages (shot on Hi8 by Shana Hagan).

The new media revolution was much in evidence, with a New Media Center hosted by Apple, a Sundance Web site, the premiere of a new Internet service called the Virtual Film Festival, and numerous panels devoted to the topic. At one of the latter, non­ fiction filmmaker Jayne Loader presented excerpts from her playfully stylized but seriously political CD­ ROM Public Shelter, based on the documentary The Atomic Cafe, which she made in 1982 with Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, about America's relationship with the nuclear bomb. "As a political tool, a CD-ROM is so powerful, even more so than a documentary," Loader vowed. "If you present the facts fairly, it allows people to come to their own conclusions." Our relationship with new technology was the subject of Iara Lee and George Gund's glossy documentary Synthetic Pleasure, which spawned such marketing spinoffs as a CD, a book, t­ shirts, mousepads, and even "sp fashion," a synthetic sportswear line "not for the old-fashioned or the technophobic."

At the awards ceremony on closing night, the fashion statements tended toward the all-black. The documentary jury, consisting of independent filmmakers Joan Churchill, Alan Raymond, and Ted Thomas, producer/activist Ada Gay Griffin, and PBS producer Ellen Schneider, gave a Special Jury Recognition for Artistic Merit to David Sonenberg and Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, a solid chronicle of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Fight of the Century," which was held in Zaire in 1974.

The Freedom of Expression Award went to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's long-awaited The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo's book. Packed with great movie clips and strong interviews, Celluloid Closet painstakingly and compellingly lays out how "Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people...and gay people what to think about themselves." It goes soft, however, on discussing the degree to which the film industry continues to keep gays in the closet both behind and in front of the cameras.

For strong character-driven storytelling, it'd be hard to beat Cutting Loose, by Sundance favs Susan Todd and Andrew Young (Lives in Hazard, Children of Fate). The colorful film, which follows the lives of a diverse group of Mardi Gras participants on the eve of the grand annual celebration, captured both the cinematography award (for Young) and the Filmmakers' Trophy. In accepting the latter, Todd commented, "It makes me feel so good to know that all the other documentary filmmakers have seen each other's films and to feel that support, because it isn't easy making documentaries." Her sentiments echoed those of Sundance honcho Robert Redford, who had opened the awards ceremony by speaking of how "the work of independent filmmakers defies all odds. That, to me, is the most moving thing."

Diana Rico is the Editor of ID.