A Stroll through Indie-Film Heaven

So what if so many of them are awful. At the Sundance festival in Utah, the scene's the thing

By Jane Todaro

Forget the Super Bowl. In late January, Park City, Utah, site of the Sundance Film Festival, is the place to be -- if you're interested in independent filmmaking. The ski-resort town is a panorama of film directors, producers, actors, screenwriters, and other film people, as well as reporters trying to get a handle on the whole thing. The only truly identifiable group: the Sundance volunteers in bright orange-neon jackets, dispensing information and helping everybody else get the correct shuttle busses to screenings and other events. When the movies and schmoozing about movies are over, everybody goes skiing. There was just one thing missing from the seventeenth annual event this year: founder Robert Redford. He was directing a movie in Europe.

The festival has become the winter ritual for the movie industry. Taking its name from the institute established by Redford in 1981 to promote emerging directors and screenwriters, it's the American celebration of independent film, or "indies" as they're known. Sundance is now second in importance in the cinema world only to the Cannes festival in France. Redford's event grew out of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival and became known officially as Sundance in 1991. The commercial movie hits it has launched are legendary, from 1989's sex, lies, and videotape to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. It has also spawned such concurrent but legitimate "mimic" festivals as Slamdance, Slamdunk, and No Dance.

The Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino premiered their early work here. So did directors Jim Jarmusch, of Stranger Than Paradise fame, and Jon Sayles, whose Return of the Secaucus 7, is a classic. Both still produce independent films with very low budgets and no Hollywood stars. That's both a source of pride and irritation for serious Sundance goers. Some say Hollywood has been exerting too much influence on Sundance in recent years, decreasing its importance as a purely independent film festival. Purists were whispering this year that some of the movies screened were already secretly picked up for distribution before the event even began.


  I don't really think that matters much anymore. Independent film has now become so popular it drives decisions made in Hollywood, not the other way around. In fact, Disney, Warner Brothers, and Universal Pictures have acquired the independent distributors Miramax, New Line, and October Films, and many big-name actors would give their eyeteeth to be in a film premiering at Sundance, just because of the "independent film" mystique. It's still a selective grouping. From more than 3,000 entries, fewer than 200 were accepted.

This year, plenty of hype went into the Sundance "Digital Center" on Main Street, but you really didn't hear much about it. Perhaps the feeling is that digital filmmaking has been overpromoted. Making a good movie is a difficult task. And just because the medium is digital doesn't necessarily make it a better movie. In fact, it can work the other way around: Digital makes anybody with a video camera a filmmaker. I asked Sundance volunteer and budding filmmaker Bob Phillips, at Sundance trying to attract investors for his film-in-progress, what he thought about the trend toward digital. His response? "I'm an artist."

Veteran Sundance filmmaker Richard Linklater, director of such films as Slacker and the commendable Before Sunrise, had two entries in this year's festival, one of which was Tape, shot in digital video and featuring stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, as well as Robert Sean Leonard. Set entirely in a motel room with a three-member cast, not only is the film annoying and monotonous but it also looks bad. The digital format lacks the beauty and dreaminess of film, and emphasizes imperfections in actors' skin and overall appearances.


  But the question of new technology promoting accessibility for many up-and-coming directors is just one issue in today's independent film world, and not the most important one. Nobody much talks about this, but most films shown at such festivals are quickly consigned to oblivion -- and rightly so. Let's be honest: Most of them are awful.

Sundance is no different. Indies can be boring, pedestrian pieces of work, ill-conceived and poorly executed. Others are simply too depressing, weird, or offensive to appeal to mass audiences. I attended a press screening of The Isle, an offering in the festival's World Cinema division by South Korean director/screenwriter Ki Duk Kim. Shot in Korean with English subtitles, this eerie and perverse tale contained some of the most repulsive scenes -- one scatological, others self-mutilating in nature -- I've ever witnessed in a movie. The woman next to me walked out.

At the other end of the spectrum was the documentary An Unfinished Symphony, by directors Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros. Although it drags in places, it's an interesting and thoughtful look back at Vietnam Veterans Against the War, containing some especially poignant 1971 footage of current Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.


  Winning the Dramatic Grand Jury Award was The Believer, by director/screenwriter Henry Bean, based on a true story of a young religious Jewish man's conversion to neofascism. Taking the same award in the documentary category was Southern Comfort, a cinema vérité look by Kate Davis at transsexuals in a trailor park in rural Georgia. Winning both the Dramatic Directing Award and the Dramatic Audience Award was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, director John Cameron Mitchell's screen version of his off-Broadway hit. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see any of the films that won.

But all in all, after the films have finished screening, all luncheons, meetings, and parties have ended, and directors, producers, and the rest of us have left town, Sundance is still something to see. Here's to a cold January in Utah.

Todaro is an editorial assistant in BW's Washington bureau and a budding screenwriter

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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