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Sundance '97: Coming Down to Earth

By Grace Ouchida

A woman kisses her baby on the cheek from Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane C. Wagner's 'Girls Like Us.'

Amidst all the black leather jackets, cell phones, pagers, rental cars, and gala soirees, documentaries manage more than just a niche at Park City's Sundance Film Festival. In the introductory remarks for a screening of one of the docs, a Sundance programmer said something to the effect of, "To escape the craziness and [Hollywood] hype of the festival, and come down to earth, I tell people 'go see a documentary. "'People must have listened: documentaries claimed full houses throughout the run of the festival.

Sundance 1997 showcased 49 documentary features and shorts out of a total of 194 films: 1 in Premieres, 16 in Documentary Competition (plus 10 shorts preceding the features), 8 in American Spectrum, 3 in World Cinema, 3 in Frontier, 3 in Shorts Programs, and 5 in Native Vision in Cinema. They ran the gamut from cutting edge, biographical, historical, personal, to political and social issue films.

Audiences were left to contemplate life's philosophical questions with Errol Morris Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Morris has again exhibited his creative mastery in this visual palette of insight into the eccentric worlds of a lion tamer, a mole-rat specialist, a topiary gardener and an insect robotics engineer. Andrew Kotting 's Gallivant takes the audience on a profound odyssey, with his grandmother and daughter, around the coastline of Britain; the film offered the audience a dizzying high, much like disembarking from a philosophical "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." Ross McElwee fans will be delighted by the third installment of his on-going autobiographical project (beginning with Sherman's March and continuing with Time Indefinite): Six O'Clock News is a road trip into the lives of those struck by tragedies, an attempt to investigate the meaning beyond the disaster and danger seen on television news today.

Of the 16 documentaries in competition, 6 were ITVS programs, suggesting that despite the drastic government funding cuts over the past two years, here is an organization that has managed to continue its support of independent filmmakers and "programs that involve creative risks and address the needs of undeserved audiences," even while it struggles to survive.

IDA member Renee Tajima-Pena hit the road for My America ...or Honk If You Love Buddha, winner of the Cinematography Award for Documentary: she questions what it means to be an Asian-American but ultimately asks herself what it means simply to be an American . Insightful and humorous, Tajima­ Peiia 's film pokes fun at the stereotypes that color attitudes towards Asians and shows that they are just as diverse and complex as America is... or Asia is, for that matter.

The same fear and ignorance that leads to stereotype s has a more devastating effect, as IDA member Arthur Dong reveal s in Licensed to Kill, winner of the Documentary Filmmaker s Trophy and Directing Award. Attacked 20 years ago by gay bashers on the streets of San Francisco, Dong confronts mur­ derers of gay men, face-to-face, to ask: "Why ?"; he takes the audience along for a riveting journey into the minds of those whose contempt for homo sexual s drove them to commit their heinous acts.

Long-time filmmaker Su Friedrich's latest experimental film Hide and Seek was one of several films at Sundance this year dealing with the largely unexamined world of what advertisers call "tweens": girls in the moments between girlhood and adulthood. What makes Hide and Seek provocative is that it focuses on lesbian childhood and weaves archival science and sex education films with true tales of growing up lesbian and a girl-centered narrative set in the 1960s.

Adapting the video diary format and winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, IDA member Tina Difeliciantonio and Jane C . Wagner also explore the "tween" theme with Girls Like Us, working with several young Philadelphia teenage girls to record their lives over five years, through their time in junior high. The girls struggle with their dreams and the expectations placed on them by family, friends and society; the results are truly moving .

Judith Helfand's poignant film A Healthy Baby Girl charts the life-shattering consequences of DES, a drug taken by her mother i n the early 1960s. Though the drug was known to be carcinogenic, it was prescribed for millions of women to prevent miscarriages, with little research into its long-term effect. For Helfand, as for many DES-exposed women, it has meant cancer and a hysterectomy before the age of thirty . The film traces Helfand 's personal struggle and her subsequent activism around the issue, which continues with the film's distribution.

Personal struggle and activism also form the basis for a film from Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles: The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle is a social history of the United Farmworkers Union and its charismatic leader-the most important Latino leader in this country's history. Using archival footage, newsreels and present-day interviews, the film is a testament to Chavez's life, portraying him not as martyr or saint, but as catalyst and human being committed to a movement for justice and peace for farmworkers in California.

Another more current day battle is taking place across America, as documented by An Act of Conscience, from HBO/Cinemax Reel Life. Filmmaker Robbie Leppzer chronicles the dramatic story of two families: one, who for fourteen years withheld payment s of their federal income taxes as protest against war and military spending, ends up losing their home; the other, for whom home ownership seemed beyond their means, jumped at the chance to buy the tax-protesting-family's house at government auction. Filmed in cinéma vérité style, this documentary is an engrossing and thought-provoking glimpse of the conflict between these two families and two opposed sets of principles.

Frighteningly enough, schools across the U.S. have also become a political battleground. Gini Reticker returned to Sundance (having previously won the Freedom of Expression Award in 1994 with The Heart of the Matter) with New School Order, a compelling look at one community's fight in what is becoming a national struggle for control of dollars, dogma and direction: school board wars.

California's recently passed Proposition 187 denies public education and healthcare to illegal immigrants. In Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary, first time filmmaker Laura Angelica Simon has produced a deeply personal and raw account from her intense experience as an immigrant teacher at a school forced to confront the depths of prejudice and community strife made apparent by Prop 187; her film rightly earned the prestigious Freedom of Expression Award.

Poverty Outlaw is the story of one woman's perilous descent from middle-class security to welfare and to abject poverty in a matter of five years, an "outlaw " to survive and support her children. It is the second in a series produced by Skylight Pictures (Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy), the first being Takeover which premiered at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. The film has a street level immediacy in its urgent and straightforward realism: the filmmakers let their subjects pick up the camera themselves, revealing through intimate video diaries the emotional depths of their everyday travails.

In Riding the Rails, Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell literally put the audience on track for a journey through time and across the U.S. Their film is a tender account of the experiences of teenage freight train riders looking for adventure and work in the harsh and barren wastelands of the Great Depression.

Proving once again that fact is stranger than fiction, filmmaker Macky Alston finds a quintessential American story in his own backyard: in tracing hills North Carolina family's history, he finds himself the unwitting messenger between his white relatives in the south, and families of African-American Alstons who were once owned by his ancestors. Adding to the already compelling plot, Family Name, which shared the Freedom of Expression Award with Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary, makes Jinks between gay civil rights issues experienced in Alston's lifetime and the civil rights struggle for African-Americans.

In another Cinemax documentary—Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End—L.A.—based director Monte Bramer and producer Lesli Klainberg wrap up more than three years of work on their portrait of writer Paul Monette, best known for his passionate writing about living with AIDS. The film won this year's Sundance Audience Award for documentary .

Director Kirby Dick was Bob Flanagan's friend, and therein lies the appeal of this remarkable portrait of an artist in Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Unlike James Joyce's creation, Bob Flanagan was born with cystic fibrosis; he chose sado-masochism as his art form, creating a cult following with performances around the country. We follow Flanagan, with his family, friends and lover, as he heads towards the death he has spent a lifetime anticipating. The film might be hard to watch, but in the end, it is worth the pain: Flanagan would have approved. Sick received a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and occasioned a stormy public feud amongst the documentary jurors following the Festival.

The first of Black Dot Media's "African Scholars" series, John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk, documents the life and ideologies of one of America's most respected intellectuals. Producing both a biography of Clarke as an academic and activist and a quick stroll through 5,000 years of African history, IDA member and director St. Clair Bourne gives us passionate look at the past through the eyes of a man who knows his history inside out and investigates the founding of the "Pan-African" ideology.

The Long Way Home examines the critical post World War II period between 1945 and 1948 and the plight of the tens of thousands of refugees who survived the Holocaust. The documentary looks at their attempts to get to the Jewish homeland (often illegally) and also explores how much of the world turned its back on the tragedy of these forgotten people. Writer/Director and IDA member Mark Jonathan Harris combines rare archival film and stills with new interviews and interweaves historical narrative with stories, anecdotes and recollections by Jewish refugees. In concentrating on how much of the world ignored the plight of these refugees, the film offers important lessons as we confront the tragedy of refugees in Bosnia, Africa and Central America.

With such diverse and compelling topics, combined with great storytelling, it is no small wonder that doc screenings at Sundance were packed. But what about beyond Park City, Utah, and other festivals, where these films need to be seen? A mere handful will make it to theatres or television. Why is it so difficult to expand the documentary audience? Perhaps the stigma of documentary being too serious and heavy is to blame. The question that then comes to mind is framed best by author Milan Kundera: "But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?" In the euphoric and chimerical setting of a film festival, is it possible that documentaries get more attention because, as Kundera ponders, "The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become ." Lightness is no advantage in coming down to earth.


GRACE OUCHIDA is Special Projects Coordinator for the International Documentary Association. She extends her appreciation to Cara Mertes for commentary on the individual films discussed here.