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Legends, Alumni and Young Turks Were This Year's Sundance Kids

By Tom White

From <em>LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton</em>.

The 2001 Sundance Film Festival was homecoming, alumni weekend and orientation all rolled into one. The annual wintertime happening feted some of the greatest legends of the doc—Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, William Greaves, George Butler—most of whom had been making films longer than the mean age of the festival attendees and participants. The festival also hosted a number of Sundance alums like Kenneth Carlson (Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, 1996; Go, Tigers!, 2001), Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and Times of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, 1997; Chain Camera, 2001); Barbara Hammer (Tender Fictions, 1996; History Lessons, 2001), Stanley Nelson (Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, 1999; Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, 2001), Doug Pray (Hype!, 1996; Scratch, 2001), and Chris Smith (American Movie, 1999; Home Movie, 2001), Finally there were the Sundance frosh, among them, Edet Belzberg (Children Underground) Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys), Jehane Noujaim (, with Chris Hegedus), all of whom staked their claim in the Park City tundra with their remarkable debut features in hand. Once and future trailblazers found room under the wintery tent to share their work and war stories.

Despite the dynamic mix of artistry—legends, alums and young Turks—reflected in this year’s programming, the Sundance staff doesn’t go into the selection process with a pre-conceived formula. “You can never plan the mix prior to the films being sent to you,” says Nicole Guillemet, the festival’s co-director. “So there’s no strategy prior to the festival. When films are sent to us is when we look at what’s out there, and we make a choice. What is really nice personally is to have a mix at the end, because everyone gains from seeing another documentary from Albert Maysles or Stanley Nelson, as well as from someone new.

“I don’t remember who said it at the last festival, but he said, ‘We are always working on our first film,’ and it’s even more so in documentary film,” Guillemet continues. “I think that’s what it’s all about, especially when programming a festival. You want to look at every film totally fresh and with an eye on discovery. Then the program comes together. Some years there may be filmmakers who have made more films than others, but it’s the quality and the freshness of the films which decide if a film is in or not.”

The documentary dompetition yielded a fresh crop, including Grand Jury Prize-winner Southern Comfort, IDA member Kate Davis’ generous profile of a community of transgendered people in the deep American South—and a love story within between Robert, a grizzled, genial woman-to-man who’s dying of ovarian cancer, and Lola, his Junoesque man-to-woman paramour. Davis opens our minds to this little-known and little-understood community and offers a well-crafted, well-paced tale.

Stacy Peralta walked away with both the Audience Award and the Directing Award for his Dogtown and Z-Boys. On the surface, Dogtown, named for a scrappy, rough-hewn Southern California beachside community, might pass as another skateboard video, a genre Peralta has trafficked in over the past 17 years. But Dogtown is a dazzling and exhilarating portrait of the evolution of a community and a culture—not just a sport. Peralta obviously had an inside track, since he was one of the original Z-Boys in the film, and he garnered fame and fortune at a young age. The film borders on MTV-style, with rapid-fire montage, a dizzying array of shooting formats and some clever, post-mod conceits (like Sean Penn stumbling over his own narration, some simulations of film leaders and frame-meltdowns, et al), but it's all in keeping with hell-for-leather escapades of the Z-Boys. And if you like the stoner-cum-troglodyte icons like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith, well, this is the soundtrack for you!

IDA member Tom Shepard was another double winner with Scout’s Honor, which shared the Audience Award and earned the Freedom of Expression Award. The film takes on an issue—gays in the Boys Scouts—and follows four intrepid individuals who have challenged the Scouts’ mandate against homosexual membership—in one case, all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Scout organization. Unfortunately for Shepard, officials from the Boy Scouts refused to participate in the film, lending the film a slightly one-sided P.O.V. Still, the film tells four very compelling stories, including one of a teenage scout who has braved death threats and ostracism to bring the nation’s attention to this issue.

Edet Belzberg’s Children Underground, a Special Jury Prize winner, captured the gritty, unsettling world of runway children in post-Cold War Romania. Reminiscent of Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984), which looks at a similar subculture in Seattle, Children Underground goes on its own, at times maddeningly slow pace, reflecting the grindingly numb day-to-day lives of these lost souls who live seemingly from one snort of paint fumes to the next. It’s a wrenching film and one that, in it’s own quietly devastating way, fixates our senses on a world we’d rather ignore.

Finally, Maysles won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. Commissioned by HBO to document poverty in America at the turn of the millennium, Maysles and his co-directors Susan Fromeke and Deborah Dickson made the improbable segue from the billion-dollar Getty Center, the subject of A Concert of Wills, to rural Mississippi, the epicenter of dire straits. In a time of relative plenty, it was a bold and necessary move for the Maysles team to train its cameras—as Edward R. Murrow did 40 years ago in Harvest of Shame—on a place that time seems to have forgotten. Maysles, typically, lets his camera do the talking, patiently capturing a devastating story here, a glimmer of hope there.

To complement the documentary competition and other screening programs in the festival, there was the House of Docs (see sidebar), which opened its doors last year to great acclaim, and expanded this year to accommodate festival second-halfers. Filmmaker Erroll Morris (Dr. Death; Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) held court one day, demonstrating his Megatron, a machine he developed to facilitate the interviewing process. Essentially a set-up of 20 cameras and mirrors rigged at every angle, the Megatron enables the interviewee to look straight at Morris, and vice versa, rather than off to the side of the camera. Morris demonstrated his machine, an expanded version of his earlier Interrotron, from behind a black curtain, but his image was everywhere, in every angle, on monitors around the facility. “We are connecting through cameras, mirrors and monitors, but we are looking at each other,” Morris explained in his presentation. “Technology and intimacy are not at odds with one another. Technology creates a different kind of intimacy.”

In fact, the intimacy is so different that Morris doesn’t have to be in the same room with an interviewees, who nonetheless see him at all times on the prompter, which Morris ironically prefers to be black-and-white, “for an element of distance…Black-and- white is more dreamlike and abstract.” The DV revolution enabled Morris to add more cameras and “edit in ways I didn’t think possible….I haven’t tapped what I can do with this device,” he proclaimed. “It’s a surprise to me that I’m the only one who’s doing this.”

Elsewhere at the House of Docs, there were tales from the trenches—hilarious ones, indeed—at a Filmmaker to Filmmaker Roundtable held on the final day. George Butler, here with The Endurance: Shackelton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, recalled that when he was struggling to make Pumping Iron in the 1970s, Emile Di Antonio was feverishly—and clandestinely—finishing up Weathermen in the editing suite across the hall. The FBI was eager to see the film—not out of a passion for the art form, but because of their frustrated efforts to capture the radical subjects of the film. One night the FBI raided the facility, returned to Washington headquarters, and presented FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and sidekick Clyde Tolsen with several hours of footage—from Pumping Iron. In another dispatch from that roundtable, Merata Mita recalled making a film about a Rastafarian sect in her native New Zealand and losing cameraman after cameraman to the mystical and addictive allure of the subject of the doc.

Those war stories helped bring the House of Docs—and Sundance—to a successful close. “In such a hectic pace of a festival,” Guillemet notes, “it’s a way to find a place to nurture and provide support for documentary makers. It has created a community beyond our hopes. From the filmmakers I hear, ‘I haven’t seen this guy in five years and now we’re going to work together.’ This is what it’s about: the community and people feeling that they’re not as lonely in their endeavors of creating documentary film.”


Thomas White is Editor of International Documentary.