May 1, 2000

Sundance Film Festival 2000

Clockwise: top-left: Desmond Tutu in <em>Long Night's Journey into Day</em>, <em>The Eyes of Tammy Faye</em>, Local Bronx Casita in <em>Americanos</em>, Albrecht Becker (l), in <em>Paragraph 175</em> before he joined the German Army in 1940.

The Sundance Film Festival has always provided a home for documentary-makers, veterans and rookies alike, to share their work and war stories with a receptive community. Documentaries get equal billing with dramatic features, and over the past few years, docs have caught that sacred Sundance buzz like nothing else. Sundance 2000 upped the ante this year, not only introducing digital projection for several of the documentaries, but also opening the House of Docs.

I arrived in Park City just in time for the World Premiere of Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury, which chronicles the rise and fall of the legendary punk music band The Sex Pistols and examines the political, cultural and economic crucible in which the band's fire and brimstone was forged. Filths Temple's second go-round with the Pistols; The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle was produced two decades earlier under the vigilant eye of punk impresario Malcolm Mclaren. Temple gives the surviving Sex Pistols and the late Sid Vicious center stage in Filth, and they take it with a vengeance, lashing out at England, Mclaren and sometimes even each other.

From Julien Temple's <em>The Filth and the Fury</em>, which chronicles the rise and fall of the legendary punk music band The Sex Pistols

The Filth and the Fury finds a quieter filmic cousin in Dark Days, Marc Singer's riveting documentary about New York's subway tunnel-dwellers. A first-time filmmaker, Marc Singer tackled Dark Days with the intent of getting this subterranean community out of the tunnels and into decent housing. He lived in the tunnels himself for two years, before and during shooting, and his compatriots in the underworld became his film crew. Shooting on black-and-white 16mm film, Singer crafted a film that, despite its gritty Dostoevskyian texture, is generous, even hopeful, in spirit. In the end, all is well: everyone finds a home above ground, and Marc Singer earned three awards for his efforts-the Cinematography Award, the Playboy Freedom of Expression Award and the Audience Award.

First-time filmmakers can enjoy that kind of fortune at Sundance. Two other novices in the Documentary Competition, Deann Borshay and James Ronald Whitney, both made personal films-First Person Singular and Just, Melvin, respectively-that explore the dynamics and history of their families. The similarities end there, Borshay was a South Korean orphan when she was adopted by a white family in northern California in the 1960s. Her film chronicles her quest to find the truth about herself and reconcile her Korean and American identities—and her families.

Just, Melvin is a troublesome blast from the underbelly of America. Filmmaker James Ronald Whitney recounts the horrors of his monstrous grandfather Melvin Just, a compulsive child molester and probable murderer. The primary victims of Just's wrath, Whitney's grandmother, aunts, cousins, mother and Whitney himself, tell gothic tales right out of a Faulkner novel. Whitney deserves credit for trying to rework the personal survival story. His artistic choices may miss the mark, but he has spun a tale full of sound and fury.

Robina Courtin, the subject of Australian filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson's debut film Chasing Buddha, also grew up in an abusive environment. The film, part of Sundance's Documentaries from Down Under program, charts Robina's dramatic transformation from troubled child to Buddhist nun. Although Courtin-Wilson is her nephew, he stays behind the camera, opting to shoot Robina's sisters and friends instead. The film can be jumpy and unsettled as it keeps up with Robina, whose commitment to her faith has neither slowed her down nor mellowed her temperament.

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack succeeds on two levels: as a fascinating portrait of the legendary American folk artist Ramblin' Jack Elliott and as a wise and poetic tale of one woman's quest to connect with her long-wayward father. Aiyanna Elliott wrote, directed and produced the film, which earned the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement. Jack Elliot's story is one of transformation: born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, he was smitten with the folklore of the old west and never settled down long enough to take root.

The Return of Navajo Boy, part of Sundance's Native Forum, is also about family and loss, but it begins as something entirely different. Filmmaker Jeff Spitz traveled to Monument Valley to research the origins of a silent documentary entitled Navajo Boy, made in the 1950s by Robert J. Kennedy. Spitz managed to track down most of the original participants, who had also appeared as anonymous subjects of numerous postcards, tourist photos and films by John Ford. One of the participants in Navajo Boy, the youngest son, was taken away by missionaries and was never heard from again. The son, ironically named John Wayne Cly, learns about the documentary, contacts his long lost family and returns to Monument Valley for a wrenching reunion.

Anne Makepeace's Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians profiles photographer Edward S' Curtis, who made it his life's work to document the entire North American Indian experience and traditions in photographs, audio recordings, films and a 20-volume work. He died in obscurity in the 1950s and his work didn't resurface until 20 years later. Makepeace's film is an exhaustive effort to bring to light the life and work of an unsung American documentarian.

Stranger with a Camera examines a case in which a documentarian was murdered by the subjects he had come to film. Director/producer Elizabeth Barret, a native of eastern Kentucky, where the 1967 murder had taken place, looks at the context and circumstances of the crime. Stranger with a Camera is not merely a murder mystery, but a carefully considered and crafted parable about the complex relationship among media makers, media viewers and the community and culture that they document.

The Charcoal People takes a well-documented subject the plight of the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil-and looks at the migrant workers who cut down trees on a daily basis to make charcoal tbr the pig iron and steel industries. Director Nigel Noble and producer Jose Padilha soft-pedal the political indictments, occasionally interspersing texts on a black screen about the ecological ramifications of charcoal production. Noble trains the camera on the workers themselves, letting them tell their stories while they stack logs, build kilns and burn wood for $2.00 a day. In his unobtrusive approach, Noble introduces the viewer to a little-known culture that is inextricably linked to an internationally debated issue.

Issue-oriented documentaries had their forum at Sundance. Sound and Fury looks at the complexities of a debate within the hearing-impaired community over cochlear implants. When they discovered one family that embodied the debate, director Josh Aronson and producer Roger Weisberg struck documentary gold. The film has its own drama, rich with intergenerational and sibling conflict, heated discussions over assimilation vs. preservation of cultural identity, and widening divisions between the hearing and deaf cultures. Sound and Fury may have overstated its case at times by circling back over points of the debate and running the risk of blunting its potency, but Aronson and Weisberg have succeeded in introducing us to a culture that most of us see without seeing.

Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson introduced Well-Founded Fear as "a fllm about luck and compassion." The filmmakers were given unprecedented access to the New Jersey and New York offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Services, and the asylum officers in the film were remarkably candid and generous in sharing insights about their profession. The filmmakers also take the viewer to the other side, following several asylum cases as they ready for their fateful day at the INS. It takes luck and compassion on both sides of the INS window-and on both sides of the camera.

Immigration and the elusive American dream figured in two other documentaries at Sundance: Americanos: Latino Life in the United States and Nuyorican Dream. Producers Nick Athas and Edward James Olmos tapped Susan Todd and Andrew Young to take on the daunting task of capturing the multi-faceted Latino culture in the United States in one 90-minute film-all in the span of eight months. That Todd and Young pulled it off is impressive, and they managed to cover a remarkable cross-section of regions and communities. By the end of Sundance, Andrew Young was doubly blessed: he shared the Excellence in Cinematography Award and Susan Todd, his wife, gave birth to a son.

Nuyorican Dream focuses on one Puerto Rican family in New York and their struggles to overcome the harsh adversities of living in an unforgiving city. Laurie Collyer makes her feature-length debut here, and she got a lot of help from Robert Torres, the oldest and most responsible sibling in the family and the associate producer of the film. Collyer is there to capture the conflicts, but also the love, as one family fights to keep their sights on the waning American dream.

PBS's American Experience was well-represented at Sundance, with George Wallace: Setting the Woods on Fire and Scottsboro: An American Tragedy getting high profile try-outs before their small screen premieres. In George Wallace, directors Daniel McCabe and Paul Stekler and writer Steve Fayer presented a complicated character of Shakespearean dimension, one who embodied Southern politics, power and ideology. The team received a Special Jury Prize for Writing. Scottsboro mined the same Southern territory for one of the more tragic miscarriages of justice, in which nine African Americans were accused of raping two white women. Filmmakers Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker skillfully guide viewers through the long Byzantine process that would divide North and South, Black and White, liberal and conservative. In the end it was none other than George Wallace, in his twilight period of penance and redemption, who pardoned the last surviving Scottsboro boy.

Long Night's Journey into Day, Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid's searing film about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, covers four cases presented before the Commission in the long painful healing process in the wake of Apartheid. With the help of South African cameraman Ezra Jwili, Hoffman and Reid were afforded access to many of the families of the victims of apartheid. The resulting film, which juxtaposes the TRC hearings with interviews with victims and perpetrators, is an explosive testament to one of the most painful periods in recent history, Long Night's Journey into Day earned the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary Competition.

Very few films, if any, have covered the plight of homosexuals and lesbians during the Third Reich. Paragraph 175, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's latest work, refers to the law on the German books that banned homosexuality. The directors, along with associate producer Klaus Muller, tracked down the few remaining victims of this little-known slice of history and allow them the space and time to tell their stories. Epstein and Friedman enhance the narratives with footage and images from the period and the film they deliver is a quietly devastating gem. Epstein and Friedman won the Documentary Directing Award for Paragraph 175.

After the awards and accolades on closing night, it was time to party. I ran into Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose The Eyes of Tammy Faye caught considerable attention. "We wanted to make a film about someone that everybody hated," Bailey intimated. In the resulting makeover, Jeny Falwell and Pat Robertson become the real villains, and Jim and Tammy Faye the true victims. Tammy Faye comes across as warm, funny and only slightly over the top. Above all, she's a survivor—of betrayal, divorce, addiction and cancer. The film has a light campy spirit on the edges, with puppets introducing each scene and RuPaul narrating, but never lapses into pure camp. It's all in the spirit of Tammy Faye, the quintessential "It Girl" of Sundance 2000.

 

Tom White is the Associate Editor of International Documentary.

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