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Slamdance Strikes Its Claim At The Silvermine

By Tom White

William Gibson: <em>No Maps for These Territories</em>

Over the past seven years, Slamdance Film Festival has evolved from scruffy upstart, taking on Sundance, the eminence grise of Park City, with a DIY alternative in 1995, to a wiser, but still mischievous older brother, having spurred a bevy of alternaDances—Slumdance, NoDance, TromaDance, DigiDance, Slamdunk, et al—that have pitched their tents in the tony Utah resort town every January.

And for Peter Baxter, Slamdance’s founder and artistic director, that’s just fine. “Generally speaking, we’re very supportive of any film festivals in Park City or anywhere, for that matter, that are supporting new filmmakers in particular,” he says. “We came about as an organization in ’95 after one or two filmmakers had decided that they would bring their films to Park City by themselves. So we thought we’d do this as a collective and then it obviously turned into more than just one year and then into a film festival.”

“There are so many films being submitted to us, we cannot play them all,” he continues. “So we can help other film festivals with suggestions; we’re very supportive of that.”

Nicole Guillemet, co-director of the Sundance Film Festival, observes, “There’s two ways to look at it—one , programmatically, I think it’s always good to have other alternatives and options. There are so many different films out there that have no other places to be exhibited. What may be the only problem is that Park City is already bursting at the seams in terms of having the Sundance Film Festival there. And as you keep adding more festivals, it’s harder and harder to generate a welcoming environment for filmmakers and for film-goers; that’s my main concern.”

Indeed, Slamdance moved this year from its former digs on Main Street to the Silvermine, on the outskirts of Park City. “We had simply outgrown our venue at Treasure Mountain Inn,” Baxter says. “We had so many people who wanted to come and see the films and screenings that pretty much all of them in 2000 were sold out. So we thought we have to try to accommodate people who want to come and see the films. Actually, we’ve not had a very large film program—that’s important, because we have a very close relationship with the filmmakers; if we have too many films and filmmakers, we tend to lose touch with one another.”

The risk of moving farther afield—and farther from the ample transportation for Sundance—did eventually pay off. Opening night attracted thousands of patrons, and, with a sustained, grassroots marketing effort, filmmakers and film-goers alike flocked to the Silvermine and spent the day there. “People had seen the venue and were talking about it,” Baxter notes. “And we had many, many more come to Slamdance than any previous fest before. It was a really good start for us at the Silvermine, and I think the most important thing to say is that we really established our independence in Park City.”

And what about the docs? Well, three documentaries screened in competition with the narratives, and one of them, Monteith McCollum’s Hybrid, took the Grand Jury Award for Best Feature. When you consider a film about an Iowa farmer who revolutionized a way to hybridize corn, you may not rush to see it. But Hybrid is such a revelation in so many ways. The film itself is a hybrid of documentary, animation, and experimental, and McCollum has a seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of artistic sensibilities to render the ordinary and mundane—and you don’t get much more ordinary than a cornfield—into something extraordinary and astonishing. Shot in grainy 16mm and Super-8 black and white, Hybrid weaves together footage of Milford Beeghly, the subject of the film (who also happens to be McCollum’s grandfather), Beeghly’s family and archival footage of Beeghly plugging his agronomical innovation on local television. And there’s also the grimly impressionistic vistas of farmland right out of a Hopper painting, seamlessly juxtaposed with footage from Pare Lorenz’s The Land and The Plow That Broke The Plains and the time-lapse animated sequences of corn growing, popping and dancing, and, yes, mating. McCollum also composed the music, a melancholy chamber work that recalls Bartok.

Hybrid impressed the Slamdance jurors so much that they did away with the Best Documentary category, at least for this year, when they voted the film Best Feature. “In no way does this eliminate the worthiness of having a documentary award,” Baxter asserts. “On the contrary, it pushes it further. Personally I was very happy about that decision, and we’re glad that the jury felt that the film was strong enough for them to make that decision.”

Another notable film, which screened as part of Slamdance’s Filmmakers’ Lounge, was William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories, Mark Neale’s dazzling take on the sci-fi writer and millennial prognosticator. It was Gibson who coined the term “cyberspace” and arguably inspired the revolution—at least from a literary standpoint. Neale, who has directed music videos and created the video art for U2’s Zoo TV Tour, opted for this film to take Gibson on a road trip around America, rigging mini-DV cameras in the car and letting the man muse and pontificate on the future, his past, his art and anything else that comes to mind. Neale and his editor Rochelle Ford do the rest--cutting away, splicing in, shifting the landscape and basically rendering Gibson’s musings as fast as he utters them. Getting into someone’s mind and putting it on the screen is a daunting thing, but Neale takes the viewer on one bracing, mind-warping, sensory-taxing ride.

Baxter plans to give documentaries a higher profile next year, with a separate jury looking at documentaries exclusively. “We’ve always had strong documentaries submitted to the festival, like the short films, which increasingly have been appreciated to be at such a high standard,” he says. “I’d like to see this same thing developed for the docs. We just won’t be satisfied in giving them the best documentary prize if the jury thinks that an entry is actually the best film in the festival.”