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Sundance '98

By Cara Mertes

A closeup of Lou Reed from 'Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart', a deft illustration of Lou Reed's astonishing and far-reaching influence on rock music.

Out of 170 features and shorts at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, 44 were documentaries, including 1 in Premiere, 2 in Spectrum, 4 in World Cinema (with Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney, canceled due to legal problems but still viewed in a private showing); there were 26 total in the Documentary Competition; and the balance in the Shorts Program and Native Vision in Cinema.

This year's Documentary Competition showcased a good mix of sixteen features by fledgling, emerging and veteran film­makers alike. Following are their reviews:

BABY, IT'S YOU — Dramatic Doc :56

Filmmaker Anne Makepeace's quest for family and love in the '90s is the subject of her latest documentary. Makepeace, who is in her late forties, courageously discloses to the audience the struggle by her and her husband to conceive a child by scientific means. She delves into her own upbringing and personal history and the lives of her and her husband's baby­ boomer siblings, who are also dealing with the issue of relationships. We meet her lesbian sister-in-law, co-parenting a newborn with her partner; a brother who has never been married and decides to become a polygamist; and another brother whose reclusive life finds him surrounded by goats. Over the course of a year, life changes dramatically for everyone—and not in ways they expected. With Baby It's You, Makepeace creates an honest, intimate and sometimes rueful picture of the complications in building familial bonds.

BEAUTOPIA — Exposé Doc 1:43

What does it really mean to become a Supermodel? The phenomenon has teenage girls around the world coveting this career more than becoming a movie star. Director Katharina Otto follows four teenage beauty contest winners as they traverse the globe in search of Supermodel status, to discover what it takes to make it. She examines the fashion world with a critical eye as the girls are thrust into new environments and forced to maneuvre their way through an adult world with little guidance. In the quest for glamour, fame and fortune, the young models confront their own identities; and their individuality and confidence suffer. Packed with interviews from experts in the field, including models, designers and agents, Beautopia offers a thorough scrutiny of the beauty business.


Nineteen years ago, Penelope Spheeris filmed the emerging punk rock scene in The Decline of Western Civilization. In 1998, Spheeris returns to the world of punk with Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, focusing on the abandoned and isolated teens living in the subculture of Los Angeles. Many of them are homeless, finding some solace in drugs and/or alcohol. Spheeris skillfully interviews these street­ wisened and toughened kids, who turn out to be surprisingly open and frank about their feelings and thoughts about them­ selves, their lives past, present and future. Winning the Festival's Freedom of Expression Award, The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, is hard hitting, opening our eyes to those suffering from abuse and alienation and a society that has failed them.

DIVINE TRASH — Trash Doc 1:45

Who knew that early footage of a young John Waters making films in Baltimore in the 1970s on a wing and a prayer, would one day wind up in the very entertaining Divine Trash, an indispensable record of a particularly lively aspect of the under­ground film scene of the '70s. The winner of Sundance's Filmmakers Trophy, this film centers on the making of the wildly camp classic, Pink Flamingos. It's evident in Divine Trash that John Waters knew­ even if no one else did—that he was going to become famous, or at least notorious.

Director Steven Yeager considers the context for Waters's work, with comments from friends, family, scholars and film­makers who talk about the development and trajectory of Waters's career. Most poignant is the footage of Harris Glenn Milstead (aka Divine), now dead, who comes across as outrageous, loveable and truly unique.

THE FARM — Prison Doc 1:28

Co-winner of the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, The Farm reflected this year's interest from the jury in the lives of young black men in prison—the theme of Slam as well, which won the dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Carefully crafted by filmmakers Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, The Farm focuses on the lives of several inmates at Angola, one of the U.S.'s largest maximum security prisons. Formerly a large plantation in Louisiana, Angola's inmate population is 80% African-American; the film con­centrates on a cross-section of experiences, from young to old, death-row to almost­ released. Because the filmmakers had done a previous story on the prison, their access was exceptional, and even Angola's warden becomes a character in the film. The film's illumination of life behind bars returns some humanity to people often stereotyped simply as criminals, and in the process, audience preconceptions are exchanged for a more complex portrait of institutionalized guilt, innocence, crime and punishment.


Ken Burns and Lyn Novick collaborate yet again (The Civil War, Baseball), creating a masterful document on the extraordinary life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The two and a half hour film is a comprehensive look at Wright: his tumultuous childhood, through his scandalous relationships, to his prolific and successful career. Filled with architectural drawings and plans, archival footage (some never-before-seen), historical photos, interviews with architects and writers and biographers and historians and family members, audio recordings of Wright himself, and new footage of existing Wright buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright portrays the complex life of an American genius who stayed true to his vision.

FRAT HOUSE — Sad Doc 1:00

Determined and dedicated are Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland, makers of Frat House. They travel across the country in search of a fraternity that would let them in on its secret society. They finally gain access but only by becoming pledges themselves... and are subjected to the unimaginably grueling and humiliating "hazing" used to initiate new members. Filming themselves and their soon-to-be "brothers", Phillips and Gurland question the philosophy behind hazing and those who subject themselves to such torture in order to be accepted. Co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize, the film offers a glimpse into a violent and frightening side of frat life that should be seen by students and parents everywhere.


Lisa Lewenzk new nothing about her Jewish heritage until the age of thirteen, and then years later she happened upon dozens of films made by her grandmother, Ella, whom she never knew. In A letter Without Words, Lisa uses her grandmother's films and writings to embark on a journey to Germany in search of her roots. Ella's films are compelling: their rare point of view from an affluent Jewish citizen records a carefree family life in prewar Germany, documenting the rise of Nazi rule. Not only did she film, but she edited, dated and titled her documentation as well. The film is an imagined correspondence between generations which questions the role of historical witness.


Chronicling the life and work of one of America's most important rock and roll artists, this film for American Masters finds renowned photographer Timothy Greenfield­ Sanders taking an in-depth look at the musician's career, from his start in the '60s with Velvet Underground, to his prolific 25-year solo career. Reed talks about the permutations of his music over the years, accompanied by archival footage, stills, an amazing array of interviews with famous musicians such as David Bowie and Patti Smith, composer Philip Glass, associates of the Andy Warhol Factory—this is a deft illustration of Lou Reed's astonishing and far-reaching influence on rock music.

MODULATIONS — Music Doc 1:15

Iara Lee returns to Sundance with her second film (her first being Synthetic Pleasures three years ago). She adeptly captures the essence of the electronic music subculture with her in-depth look at its inception, influences, progressions, transformations. Superbly structured, the film provides a comprehensive look at the evolution of music across geographic and time lines. Interviewed are leading tech no DJ's, musicians, composers, producers, editors, examining the works and philosophies of artists such as Kraftwerk, John Cage and Afrika Bambaataa. Filming in-studio and live performance, also club scenes, Lee presents an inventive mix of sounds and images crafted to make sense of this abstract and detached aural modern art form.

MOMENT OF IMPACT — Personal Doc 1:57

Uncomfortable. On April Fool's Day, 1989, the filmmaker Julia Lotkev's father was struck by a car while crossing the road, leaving him with irreparable brain damage. Confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak, he floats between a state of awareness and senselessness, requiring 24-hour care by his wife Larisa. Stepping in front from behind the camera, Julia films the everyday rituals taking place inside her parents' home, while probing her mother's burden and her father's state of virtual non-being , exposing not only their struggle to survive, but also leaving herself open to criticism. The film earned her Sundance 's Directing Award. Striking yet haunting, her camera work evokes a mood of loss and resignation, laying bare the realities of a tragedy's aftermath with no end in sight.

OUT OF THE PAST — Gay Doc 1:05

Skillfully blending historical figures of the past with a current day event, first-time filmmaker Jeff Dupre examines the issue of gay rights in Utah's Salt Lake City. The film focuses on seventeen year old Kelli Peterson's attempt to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school. The school explodes into an ugly battleground that makes the national news. And Kelli finds herself leading a political and moral fight which she never intended. The Utah State Legislature ultimately passed a law against any extracurricular clubs, thereby preventing the Alliance's sanction. Interwoven into this main storyline are looks back at the struggles other gay and lesbian historical figures had to deal with in their time. Winning the Audience Award, the film is an enlightening portrayal of years of repression endured by the gay and lesbian community; also the hope, courage and strength to overcome prejudice and hatred.

PAULINA — Woman's Doc 1:28

Paulina is a housekeeper, a person who for many is unnoticed, invisible in daily life. But to filmmakers Vicki Funari and Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, Paulina is "everywoman" and her story of struggle and forgiveness is in some sense archetypal. A multi-year labor of love, the film confidently blends documentary and narrative techniques as it charts the life of Paulina Cruz Suarez, a sometime housekeeper in Mexico City who grew up in a small Mexican village. On the surface, her story is unremarkable; she is one of countless women who have left a childhood of abuse and unhappiness to succeed in the big city. Her anonymity though is quickly and powerfully shed as details of her life unfold through a careful mix of reenactments and interviews.

SACRIFICE (formerly Slavegirls) — Asia Doc 1:16

Ellen Bruno's third film about Southeast Asia is her most complex and ambitious to date. Here she tells the story of several young Burmese women's descent into the Thai sex-trade, against the backdrop of the on-going Burmese military government' s ethnic cleansing campaign. The film relies on several poignant interviews where young women tell their stories. The teenage girls sometimes choose to become sex workers, but they're frequently sold into the sex­ trade by their parents, in the hopes that they may provide some income to the impoverished families. As in previous films, Bruno discovers a universal metaphor.


Every film school should own a copy of this film, which candidly and humorously combines the story of one women's career in B-movies with a history of the genre itself. Some of the characters are well known: Roger Corman, the legendary B­-movie millionaire who gave Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson and even Ron Howard their starts; B-movie pioneer Samuel Arkoff; and for erotic thriller fans, stars Julie Strain and Maria Ford talk about their careers. Director Odette Springer made herself a central character—with the help of Co-Director Johanna Demetrekas and Editor Kate Amend, her gamble works: she maintains the focus on people's personal, emotional responses to their careers and the erotic thriller films themselves.

WILD MAN BLUES — Woody Doc 1:44

Barbara Kopple adds to her repertoire of now classic investigations of the trials and triumphs of working class life (Harlan County, USA and American Dream), with this celebrity profile of Woody Allen. Her subject however proves to be an elusive one. The story is simple: 23 days, 18 cities, and lots of jazz, as Woody Allen and his band complete a European tour playing New Orleans jazz. Soon-Yi Previn-Allen accompanies (they get married on the trip), as does his sister, and the trio provide an entertaining glimpse of Allen's daily battles with his all-consuming neuroses. The film struggles mightly to provide something more than just another Woody Allen film, and Kopple manages to move beyond simply good p.r., revealing just a little of the passion and paradox of one of America's most prolific filmmakers. (Winner of the Cinematography Award.)

GRACE OUCHIDA is IDA's Associate Director: CARA MERTES is a producer/director; teacher and writer based in New York City; she is senior producer for the documentary series American Originals: 100 Years of Women and Popular Culture.