February 1, 2007

Soundings from Sundance--Part II

By Thomas White and Tamara Krinsky

In this turbo-charged era, it is possible to get nostalgic for something that happened just a week ago. So, we present one last look back at that ten-day extravangaza in the snow. When we last left off, at the mid-point, Tamara Krinsky, through her day job as reporter/producer at iklipz, was furnishing us with dispatches from various parties where the docu-faithful flocked,; Sarah Jo Marks had filed one blog, then got busy with the film she's repping, The Fighting Cholitas, which went to earn an honorable mention in the shorts category; and I, Tom White, had been there one day. Well, Tamara hit more parties, then went home; Sarah Jo got busier; and I stayed on to the end.

Tamara Krinsky: Participant Productions Party
Sunday afternoon I went to the Participant Productions party at Zoom. Classy and elegant, it was a welcome respite from the harried production insanity of my Sundance experience thus far. Participant has been a wonderful friend to the documentary community (their film CHICAGO 10 opened the festival) and so it was no surprise that many doc folks were in attendance.

One of my favorite things about Sundance and fests in general is the opportunity to finally meet in person those filmmakers and execs I have interviewed throughout the years. Many thanks to superstar editor Kate Amend (Thin, The World According to Sesame Street, Pandemic: Facing AIDS) for introducing me to EVP of Documentary Production Diane Weyermann. I had done a profile on Diane for Documentary magazine when she moved from the Sundance Institute to Participant, but had never actually met her in person. Amend is currently working on Participant's Jimmy Carter doc And He Comes in Peace... directed by Jonathan Demme, and as we joined in conversation with Participant Founder/Chairman Jeff Skoll and director Alex Gibney, it was exciting to listen to them update one another on their assorted projects. They joked with me that they were providing oodles of material for my next Documentary piece; I assured them I was not taking notes.

In everyone's bio on the Participant website, there are answers to a few personal question, ranging from "Inspirations" to "Role models" to "Favorite charities." Skoll's answer to what he likes most about his work: "Every day, whether it is in the social sector, the entertainment community, or the world at large, I get to meet many inspiring, fascinating and talented people." That's exactly how I felt at their party.

 

Tamara Krinsky: Discovery Party

Had dinner at Wahso on Main Street, where the kitchen was kind enough to get us in and out in record speed so that we could get back to Zoom to set up our shoot at the Discovery Films party. Not sure why the parties at Zoom are always so much fun, but I always end up having a good time there! Discovery Films had created a very kool Meerkat Klub upstairs, complete with lottery ticket-style raffles for Meerkat puppets, and "meer-tinis" at the bar.

[Note: If you are unfamiliar with Meerkats, they're the stars of Meerkat Manor, the hit Animal Planet series. I'll be honest...I'm still not exactly sure what a Meerkat is, but they're ridiculously cute! Discovery is currently working on a Meerkat movie].

Much less mingling for me at the Discovery party than at Participant since we were filming. But who cares about mingling when "work" means interviewing Buzz Aldrin!?!?!

Yep, that's right. I may never make it to the moon, but now I'm only one degree away. Aldrin, of course, was at the festival celebrating the film In The Shadow of the Moon, directed by David Sington, which looks at the Apollo space program and includes interviews with all surviving crew members of the Apollo missions. I grew up making my parents wake me up at 2 a.m. to watch lunar eclipses...needless to say, I cannot wait to see this film.

[SIDEBAR: North American rights to In The Shadow of the Moon were picked up by ThinkFilm a bit later in the week]

During the party, I had the opportunity to sit down with the team from Discovery Films and talk with them about their mandate. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how open they are to working with new talent. Billy Campbell, President, Discovery Networks US, told me that they want to do three to four projects per year that they can really get behind and support, both theatrically and via broadcast on at least one of their channels. They don't have a set model-they tailor distribution and marketing plans to each specific film's needs, just like they did for Grizzly Man and The Killer Within. Ultimately, the most important elements for the projects they take on are compelling stories and passionate filmmakers. Campbell told me that if filmmakers have a project they think would be right for Discovery, they should call. That's right. Just call them. Talk to them. Tell them about what you want to do, why you want to do it and if possible, show them sample footage. Not what I expected to hear from a big ol' corporation!

iklipz sat down with Campbell, Carol Tomko (EVP, Production, Discovery Networks) and Andrea Meditch (Exec. Prod, Discovery Films) for a chat about good storytelling, the kind of projects they want to work on and how indie filmmakers should approach the company.

Here's the clip from the Discovery party: Here's the clip from the Discovery party:

And for that interview with the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, as well as the director of In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington, click here:

Editor's Note: In a report in TVWeek.com (see Caught in the Web), Billy Campbell was one of the casualties of incoming CEO David Zaslav's let's-clean-house directive.

Tamara Krinsky on For the Bible Tells Me So: The film is a moving piece about Christianity, homophobia and family. There are a handful of quotes in the bible that have been interpreted over the years as specifically forbidding homosexuality; director Daniel Karslake explores the question: Does the Bible really say that it is a sin? He does so by telling the stories of several families from varying strong Christian backgrounds, examining biblical history and scholarship, and looking at current events and hate crimes. Themes that emerge over and over include biblical literalism, whether homosexuality/lesbianism is a choice or not, and the pull for parents between their deeply held religious beliefs and their love for their children.

The main strengths of the doc lie in its compelling subjects and in Karslake's ability to return to the central question of the piece: what does the Bible really say? The film has the potential to wander because so many topics are explored, but the director has avoided this by always making sure to link the various discussions back to the subject of religion, thus keeping viewers focused. The family stories, which include those of Chrissy Gephardt and Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church's history, serve as flesh and blood examples of the issues discussed in the film, creating an emotional component to what could have been just dry theory. As I watched the film, I was alternately angered by the hatred that I saw and elated by those who were able to open their minds and their hearts to changing their opinions.

 

Tamara Krinsky: Monday's Parties
Monday was one of those magical Sundance days filled with good movies, timely shuttles, fun interviews and great parties, including the Picturehouse party at Zoom, the indieWire/San Francisco Film Festival anniversary party where Cara Mertes (Director, Documentary Film Program Sundance Institute) shared her thoughts with us about this year's fest, and the IDA/A&E/ Heineken party where we met Ashley York, the winner of the A&EIndieFilms/Heineken/IDA Works in Progress Grant. She was understandably elated about being named the recipient of the $50,000 grant for her film Ah Satan. After stopping in for a bit at the Red Envelope party at the Premiere Lounge at the Riverhorse, we ended the night at the AOL shin dig that featured an intimate performance with the band Silversun Pickups. At their afterparty we snacked on pizza & the AOL candy bar filled with vintage movie candy faves...many come to Sundance to find sugar daddies...first time I've ever ended my night with one of them.

Sundance Channel party: The Signal sells, ThinkFilm's Mark Urman talks about acquiring festival winner In The Shadow Of The Moon, Sundance Channel's Kirk Iwanowski gives a preview of upcoming programming on the channel, Chasing Ghosts invites us to the arcade, Jeffrey Abramson from Gen Art remembers Adrienne Shelley, World of Wonder's Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato on Tara Reid sightings, and the team from Four Eyed Monsters passes along a few tips about self-promoting your film.

indieWIRE/San Francisco Film Festival Anniversary Party: Sundance staff and programmers Cara Mertes, John Cooper and Trevor Groth talk about this year's festival program and new ventures for the Sundance Institute.

Sunday morning at the Queer Brunch with The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken, director Angela Robinson, The Nines producers Dan Etheridge and Dan Jinks, Katherine Linton of here!'s Lesbian Sex And Sexuality, Teeth director Mitchell Lichtenstein and more!

For clips from the aforementioned gatherings, click here.

Tamara Krinsky: 'Til Tuesday
I was really hoping to make it to the 8:30am screening of Houndog to see what all the hubbub was about (and because I'd interviewed director Deborah Kampmeier about the project three years ago for Filmmaker magazine when she was in the midst of trying to get it made), but after spending the night writing and working with David on cutting iklipz videos, it just didn't happen.

Tuesday was all about filmmaker interviews. We talked with documentary directors David Stenn of Girl 27, Laura Dunn of The Unforseen and Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold from Everything's Cool. Also spent a very fun interlude with Justin Lin, Roger Fan and Sung Kang from Finishing the Game, all of whom were excited to be back at Sundance on a project together.

In the midst of our own interview schedule, we ended up hooking up with filmfestivals.com fest 21 to jointly cover interviews with Fay Grim's Parker Posey and Hal Hartley and Summer Rain (El Camino de los ingleses)'s director Antonio Banderas.

That afternoon we shot the Sundance Channel party at 350 Main where we ran into the exuberant team from The Signal who premiered and sold their movie the night before (at 3am!). So cool to have chatted with them at the beginning of the fest, and again after their success--such a great thing to see when people do something they love and then send it out into the universe and its received well.

After Sundance, Liz took me as her guest to a special Stella Artois tasting dinner at the Stein Erickson lodge. Each course used Stella in some way, shape or form, and was paired with a specific type of beer. Dessert? Beer-flavored ice cream, of course! In addition to spotlighting culinary treats, the dinner honored the New Frontier filmmakers and both Geoff Gilmore and Shari Frilot were on hand to address the crowd about their excitement about the program this year.

Parties that night included the Queer Lounge party celebrating For the Bible Tells Me So and the Miramax party for Eagle Vs. Shark. Fellow AFI FEST programmer Jon Bernstein, David and I ended the evening at an afterhours at a gorgeous house up in the hills of Park City.

I sat on the comfy leather couch in the beautiful house and let the last few moments of my Sundance experience wash over me (we weren't leaving 'til mid-day on Wednesday, but the next day would be all about packing, writing and raiding the press office for the materials we would need to finish up our pieces in LA).

Sundance 2007 was a very different kind of festival for me. Covering the event as a correspondent/producer with a camera crew is an entirely different experience than covering it as a print journalist or a festival programmer, which is how I've previously attended the fest. It results in talking with many more filmmakers but seeing far fewer movies. Though I was burnt out and exhausted from running around in the cold with heavy equipment (and from staying up just a tad too late most nights), I wouldn't have minded sticking around for an extra day or two just to watch films. The good news is that due to the number of films that were actually picked up, I may get to see some of them in a theater later this year!

Tom White: Wednesday's Child

And Tamara passed the blogatorial baton to me, without us having seen another in Park City. It just happens that way...

I opened the day without tickets to two of the screenings that I had signed up for--Banished and Ghosts of Abu Gharib. But director Marco Williams was kind enough to help me out with a ticket to Banished. In his last Sundance appearance, in 2002, Williams and Whitney Dow presented Two Towns of Jasper, which examines an ugly racist murder that exposed some uglier racist divisions in the hardscrabble town of Jasper, Texas. Banished looks at the legacy of ethnic cleansing, which took place in many towns and cities throughout the South, from Reconstruction through the Great Depression. Here Williams visits three such towns--one in Georgia, one in Missouri and one in Arkansas--and investigates what these all-white communities are doing to address their dark histories, and what the African-American descents of the displaced are doing to re-gain what was lost. At the heart of this film is the issue of reparations and the many complex questions this issue inspires. Williams said after the screening that he didn't want to make an agitprop film, but he wanted to inspire some kind of discourse.

Next on the docket was Zoo, which had already been snatched up by ThinkFilm even before the first Sundance screening. Zoo was inspired by a lurid tale coming out of the Pacific Northwest--specially, 2005, in rural Washington State, where a man was dropped off at the hospital, suffering from internal bleeding and a perforated colon. It turned out that the man had had sex with a horse, and was part of a group of men who would meet regularly for intimate sessions with the horses they loved. The Seattle Times report on this story was the most read story in that paper's history.

Now, one can take the easy approach to this story--make a lurid, sensational doc about a lurid, sensational tale. But Robinson Devor, here with his first documentary following two well-received fiction features, opted to seek out the men--the zoophiles, as they called themselves--and coax out their side of the story. So we don't hear from attorneys, cops or psychologists, and archival footage is kept at a minimum. And, of course, few of the men agreed to participate, and only one agreed to appear on camera.

Devor opts for stylized re-creations that only obliquely reference the subject at hand, resulting in a poetic dreamscape--sometimes nightmarish, sometimes lush, but always in a twilight nether region of bluish grey. And throughout we hear from the men--or from actors playing them--explaining their strange passion and their secret reality. You kinda wonder: Were Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka the di rigeur after-dark, under-the-covers reading for these guys growing up? Is the Kentucky Derby a supercharged erotic experience? What about Mr. Ed?

After filing my story for the January 24 e-zine, I checked out Crossing the Line, a fascinating story about a former American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962 and never looked back. This was the third venture into North Korea for director Daniel Gordon and producer Nicholas Bonner. Their previous efforts include The Game of Their Lives and A State of Mind. James Dresnok cuts an intriguing figure. Having grown up abandoned and abused, then having experienced a failed marriage, he defected as a young Private, seemingly on impulse to escape court martial for having broken curfew. But he lived the next 40 years as a North Korean citizen, starring in ugly American roles in Korean propaganda films. Crossing the Line is a fascinating Cold War story, seemingly frozen in time.

Up next, I caught Hot House, about another long conflict between Israel and Palestine. Here, Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan was given remarkable access to a maximum security prison that houses Palestinians. The inmates are candid about their daily lives and also about how their time in prison has tempered, broadened and deepened their political passions. In one chilling scene, a female inmate recounts her experience driving a suicide bomber to a Sbarro restaurant in the morning, then reporting on the bombing on TV that evening. Throughout her story, she's smiling, as if recalling a company picnic.

Although Hot House lacks a strong narrative, given the many characters in the film, both Palestinian inmate and Israeli wardens and keepers, Dotan gives us a more human side to a most volatile situation.

Tom White-Thursday

The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, which won an award at IDFA, is Danish filmmaker Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's five-years-in-the-making doc about an octogenarian pantheist named Mr. Vig, who decides to rent out his dilapidated old Danish castle to a Moscow-based Russian Orthodox patriarchate for use as a monastery. The fun begins when Sister Ambrosija, a feisty, headstrong nun, moves in and undertakes her own version of Extreme Makeover. The inevitable clash between the two actually brings out the humor in the story--although Mr. Vig, in his gruff, cranky charm, is a winning character. Gronkjaer becomes his unwitting confidant, teasing out vital elements from his past. But the real magic in the film emerges from the friendship that evolves between Mr. Vig and Sister Amrosija, one not unlike a fairy tale spun by Gronkjaer's fellow Dane, Hans Christian Andersen.

Much later that night, my condo mates and I played the time-honored parlor game, Casting the Doc. After tossing around Max Von Sydow, Michael Caine and Paul Newman in the Mr. Vig role, we came up with...are you ready for this? Haskell Wexler! And for the nun? No, not Jane Fonda. It came down to Irene Jacob, Juliette Binoche or Audrey Tatou in the European version, and Winona Wyder or Natalie Portman in the American version.

I trundled over to the Filmmaker Lodge for a panel on adaptations and remakes, given that fiction makers are looking to docs as source material. Following that was the IDA outreach table, at which Sandra Ruch, diane Estelle Vicari and I held court, meeting and greeting filmmakers and comrades in the nonprofit media arts industry.

From there I headed north to the Treasure Mountain Inn, Slamdance's headquarters for most of its 13 years. I managed to see Super Amigos, Arturo Perez Torres' quirky, oddball profile of five characters who dress up as super heroes in the Lucha Libre tradition and roam around Mexico City calling attention to various injustices and issues--homophobia, pollution, gentrification, animal rights and poverty. I followed that with Bad Boys of Summer (Loren Mendell, Tiller Russell, dirs./prods.) which , in following a baseball team within the walls of San Quentin prison, is reminiscent of Shakespeare Behind Bars in its intimate, sensitively handled story of a program designed to empower and enfranchise the inmates.

As a hotel, Treasure Mountain Inn is not the ideal screening facility, with its hardback seats and tricky sightlines. Nonetheless, good work has come out of Slamdance over the years--Hybrid, Stone Reader, Abduction, Mad Hot Ballroom, La Sierra--tounderscore its well-earned status as the scruffy, low-budget alternative to Sundance. It's worth a trundle up Main Street.

 

Tom White-Friday on My Mind

I caught about half of the panel on the 21st century documentary, which featured Nick Fraser of the BBC, Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Channel, Courtney Sexton of Participant Productions, filmmaker Jennifer Fox and moderator Nancy Buirski of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Fox was at Sundance with her epic six-hour work Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, for which Fox, by securing funding from eight international commissioning editors, was able to incorporate a multinational flavor and sensibility to explore how women around the world define their lives.

The panelists talked about new platforms, dimensions and aesthetics and new ways of telling stories and reaching audiences. In discussing the new media infrastructure, Fraser cited a "disaggregated fourth estate," with gains in freedom of speech and losses in the death of the newspaper. "The new media is very bad at telling both sides of story," he noted, pointing out the "dearth of films made by and for neoconservatives and the working class" and warning that in this "bubble culture" we the doc community find ourselves in, "we're cutting out a potential audience."

At that I had to scurry up Main Street to catch The Devil Comes on Horseback, the latest from Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, following their acclaimed The Trials of Darryl HuntThe Devil Comes on Horseback follows the exploits of Marine Captain Brian Steidle, who, on a mission as an observer of the ceasefire in Sudan, becomes witness to one of the most horrific genocides since Rwanda. Appalled at the inaction of the UN, the US, the African Union and the rest of the world, he quits his job in order to tell the world of what he has seen and documented through thousands of photographs. In the Q&A that followed the screening, Steidle cited the fact that 12 aid groups are pulling out because of the danger of being there. What can be done? He recommended that the UN pass a Chapter 7 resolution to send 20,000 troops there, that NATO should also send a mission, made up of Turkish troops, that a no-fly zoine and sanctions should be enforced.

How to follow genocide? With global warming. Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand's latest work, Everything's Cool, employs their signature witty style to help drive home important points about global warming.  Yes, An Inconvenient Truth is cited in the film, but Everything's Cool is more about the evolution of an issue and how its key champions have seen their hopes raised and dashed through stonewalling and obfuscation on the part of special interest groups and lobbyists. Gold and Helfand follow a few of these champions through their struggles to be heard and to make a difference.

Next up: White Light/Black Rain, Steven Okasaki's riveting work about survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. Okasaki had explored this territory before, with the 1982 film Survivors and the 2005 film The Mushroom Club. But Sheila Nevins of HBO summoned him in 2005 to make the comprehensive film he had wanted to make for 25 years. With wrenchingly unsettling testimony from both the survivors and the US soldiers who dropped the bombs, archival footage, paintings and drawings of the tragedy and a soundtrack from the likes of Mogwai, Brian Eno and others, White Light/Black Rain is a richly conceived elegy.

I concluded the day with a strange tale of love: Crazy Love. Dan Klores, making his third Sundance appearance, follows the decades-long story of Burt and Linda, two New Yorkers in and out of love, with Burt taking his obsession with Linda to dangerous levels-culminating with Linda blinded by a couple of thugs Burt had hired and Burt going to jail. But then, amid all the tabloid scrutiny, there's contrition and forgiveness and reconciliation, and the deeper, darker mysteries of love between two people. Burt and Linda shares their sides of the story, with friends weighing in as witnesses. This is a New York story, which Klores accentuates with wall-to-wall music from the '50s and '60s. At times the musical cues were so overstated and obvious that they freighted the story unnecessarily.

And so endeth Day 4.

Tom White-Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The last film I would see at Sundance--Jessica Yu's Protagonist--was probably my favorite because it's a film that English majors like me can appreciate. Following the acclaim of her previous film, Into the Realms of the Unreal, Yu was approached by Greg Carr and Noble Smith of the Carr Foundation to make a film about the Greek playwright Euripides. Not one to go the conventional route of shooting Greek tragedy professors in their book-lined studies and staging reading, Yu came up with a novel concept. After reading several of Euripides plays, she gleaned specific themes with respect to the dramatic arc of the protagonists. Then she set out to find four modern-day individuals who have gone through twists and turns, revelations and catharses, culs de sacs and conundra...and have come out on the other side, all the wiser. The characters-a closeted evangelist, a martial arts enthusiast, a bank robber and a terrorist--tell their stories engagingly, with stills and footage from their past providing ample illustration. But to bring us back to Euripides, Yu and her team used puppets to act out both selected scenes from his plays and from the lives of the modern-day protagonists. In the end, what we have is a documentary about storytelling, a tradition that traces back to the ancient Greeks and courses forward all the way to, well, the documentary tradition and beyond...indeed, to the drama of our own lives.

I went to the Awards Ceremony that night--you all got the e-blast last week about the winners--and the after-party. A good time was had by all. One of my condo-mates and I cut out to join the rest of the condo for a late-night dinner at Zoom. The temperature had plummeted to ten below zero that night, and continued that way into the morning. Although having grown up in the New York metro area and New England, I'm used to Arctic conditions, I was ready to return to warmer SoCal climes, even though it had snowed in Malibu the week before Sundance.
The next day, my condo-mates and I scattered, having enjoyed a most convivial week that was reminiscent of a college dorm, or summer camp, or maybe even The Real World: Park City. The films at Sundance would go on to other festivals, perhaps garner prizes and land distribution deals and stay with us through the rest of the year.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine; Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.

Tags: