Festival Watch: Sundance Film Festival
P.O.V. co-executive producer Ellen Schneider calls them "drama[s] that no screenwriter could fabricate." Critic and scholar Pat Aufderheide sees them as attempts to "reinvent mass media as a personal voice." Whatever you think of the current flurry of gut-spilling personal documentaries, the 1995 Sundance Film Festival proved that the craze is going strong. How else to explain the capacity crowd that, on an absolutely ski-perfect January Saturday in Utah, filled a sunless hotel conference room to capacity to listen to filmmakers Ross McElwee, Deborah Hoffmann, Lourdes Portillo, Jim Lane, and Frank Carden join Schneider and Aufderheide for a panel discussion on personal docs?
Documentaries have become a significant component of the Sundance Film Festival since Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took over what was initially the Utah state film festival 11years ago and retooled it into the country's most important showcase for independent films. (Indeed, programmer John Cooper noted at the beginning of one packed nonfiction screening, "There was a time when we'd show a documentary in this theater and there'd be ten people in the audience.") With so many of the fiction features already bought up by the majors prior to premiering at Sundance, documentaries are becoming the final stronghold of truly independent filmmaking left at Sundance.
A hundred feature-length films and 56 shorts were served up at this year's edition, held January 19-29 in Park City. As was the case in 1994, the suits with cellular phones glued to their ears turned out in droves, hoping to strike gold by nabbing the latest Four Weddings and a Funeral. The sponsors' corporate logos were everywhere evident, including that of Entertainment Weekly, whose status as "presenting sponsor" caused festival officials to ban the previously unproblematic free distribution of indie publications like ID, The Independent, and the Directors Guild of America magazine (a rule that forced certain editors to adopt guerilla distribution tactics). Most venues experienced constant gridlocks capacity crowds turned out for sold-out after sold-out screening, and the infamous apres-screening parties were impossibly jammed.
These minor irritations aside, Sundance's Passionate focus independent filmmaking brings out thousands of true movie lovers. It's great to spend ten days intensely immersed in seeing, talking about, and pondering the art (and business)of film—especially when so many attendees are as fascinated by the docs as they are by the fiction offerings.
Personal Documentaries Were The subject not only of a lively panel discussion but also of a sidebar curated by Robert Hawk and featuring some rarely seen groundbreaking works in the genre, including early films by Barbara Hammer (Double Strength), Jan Oxenberg (Home Movie), Ross McElwee (Backyard), Alfred Guzzetti (Family Portrait Sittings), and Ed Pincus's Diaries, 1971-76, painful and poignant 200 minutes of raw marital introspection that influenced many later practitioners. (Pincus, who gave up filmmaking to run a farm in New England, even struck a new print for this showing.)
Other documentaries ran the subject matter gamut: rock 'n' roll (Andrew Behar's Tie-Died: Rock 'n' Roll's Most Deadicated Fans, a behind-the-scenes look at the Grateful Dead fans' subculture, and Don Was’s superficial and badly shot I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, about musical genius Beach Boy Brian Wilson), ecology (Brian Danitz and Tzelonovikov's lovely and inspiring look at "design outlaws," Ecological Design: Inventing the Future), the inner city (Lisanne Skyler's No Loans Today, which uses a South Central Los Angeles pawn shop as a lens through which to survey the economic and emotional lives of an African -American community), poetry (A Litany for Survival, Michelle Parkerson and Ada Gay Griffin's sound-overloaded portrait of lesbian African-American poet Audre Lorde).
The Family emerged as a potent theme in such nonfictionfilms as Deborah Hoffmann's Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, the filmmaker's wry, wise examination of her mother's experiences with Alzheimer's disease (later nominated for an Academy Award), and Lourdes Portillo's The Devil Never Sleeps/ El Diablo Nunca Duerme, which plunges into speculation about the mysterious death of the documentarians uncle in her native Mexico. Despite structural unevenness, Portillo's film should be seen for its endlessly imaginative, poetic use of the film medium (for which she gives credit to cinematographer Kyle Kibbe and editor Vivien Hillgrove Gilliam).
Outstanding cinematography—in this case, by Ellen Kuras—also marked Douglas Keeve Unzipped, a smart, sassy, incredibly fun salute to fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who is captured here in all his campy glory (sample Isaacism: "It's almost impossible to have any style at all without the right dog"). Unzipped split the Audience Award with Heather MacDonald's Ballot Measure 9, a powerful look at the dispute surrounding Oregon's controversial anti-gay referendum in 1992.
The coveted Filmmakers' Trophy , presented by Arthur Dong (who sat on the documentary jury along with Ross McElwee, Peter Gilbert, Susan Todd, and Pat Aufderheide), went to the late Marlon Riggs's final film, his long-awaited Black Is... Black Ain't, which was completed by Nicole Atkinson and Christiane Badgley after Riggs passed away from AIDS complications in 1994. An ambitious mosaic that questions definitions of African-American experience and identity, Black Is... Black Ain't covers subjects ranging from sexuality and gender politics to food and music.
Crumb, Terry Zwigoff simultaneously fascinating and repulsive documentary about the controversial underground comic artist Robert Crumb ("I remember when I was five or six I was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny"), took both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award (for DP Mary Alberti). The Freedom of Expression Award went to the in-your face story of the difficulties faced by disabled people, Billy Golfus and David E. Simpson's When Billy Broke His Head... and Other Tales of Wonder. Tom's Flesh, Jane Wagner and Tom diMaria's visually fascinating short about a man's relationship to his body, won a Special Recognition in Short Filmmaking Award, and a festival favorite, Michel Negroponte's Jupiter's Wife, about the filmmaker's relationship with a mentally ill homeless woman he meets in Central Park, earned a Special Jury Recognition for Negroponte’s direction". "I think the documentaries that were shown at Sundance were remarkable, "the filmmaker commented upon accepting his award. He echoed the sentiments of many Sundance-goers:" "It's just proof to me that the documentary tradition is alive and well."
Diana Rico is the editor of ID.