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Festival Focus: Sundance Film Festival

By Sarah Jo Marks

From Cynthia Wade's documentary short Freeheld, which earned a Special Jury Prize in the shorts category at the Sundance Film Festival

It's been said that the Sundance Film Festival is the most important festival for American independent cinema. Unlike other fests that really promote fiction and have a documentary sidebar, or just plain downplay the non-celebrity-driven films, Sundance puts nonfiction on equal footing with fiction. Sundance is on the lookout for both the next big thing and the under-the-radar discovery film. Any way you swing it, Sundance has a way of setting the tone for an entire year, exposing both the industry and the public to new films that will make their way through the festival circuit, into theaters, on Oscar lists and to Netflix queues.

The 2007 edition included 196 films, of which 42 were doc features plucked from 1,362 nonfiction submissions. It's notable, then, that the famed lair of independent film would open with a doc. So, regardless of what critics had to say about Bret Morgen's Chicago 10, the fact that it opened Sundance 07 raises the profile of the entire genre.

When Sundance was not mired down with gifting suites and parties (this year the festival pushed the slogan "Focus on Film"), docs upped the ante and even broke a little ground. Chicago 10, Jessica Yu's Protagonist and Jason Kohn's Manda Bala all took refreshingly unorthodox approaches to storytelling and filmmaking. 

More traditional docs that really garnered attention include Irene Taylor Brodsky's Hear and Now, Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Lincoln Ruchti's Chasing Ghosts. I thought Hear and Now sounded sappy, but after I saw it, I knew it would win the Audience Award. The film tells the story of Brodsky's 65-year-old parents, who have been deaf their whole lives and have decided to get cochlear implants so they can hear sounds--and each other. The film is lovingly crafted, and somehow the filmmaker was able to live it and document it at the same time. I also liked the investigative doc A Very British Gangster. Donal MacIntyre, a Nick Broomfield-esque filmmaker, takes on the Sopranos of Britain in this all-access gritty gangster-style movie.

And then there were buzz films that you couldn't escape, like Dan Klores' Crazy Love and Robinson Devore's Zoo. Buzz films often have catalog descriptions that blow your mind, and then everyone just has to talk about them. I attended a special dinner for the Crazy Love team before seeing the film. When I told people that I sat 10 feet from the stars of Crazy Love, the questions started to fly. The film details a love story that was crazy enough to attract the attention of the New York tabloids.

I'm a fan of documentary shorts and apart from the film I brought there, Mariam Jobrani's The Fighting Cholitas, the only one that really got my attention was Cynthia Wade's Freeheld. I have a feeling we'll be on the festival circuit together for the next year. The Fighting Cholitas, a 20-minute short about female Bolivian wrestlers, picked up an Honorable Mention in short filmmaking, while Freeheld, about a female detective in Ocean County, New Jersey fighting for the right to pass her pension on to her domestic partner as she withers away with lung cancer, deservedly nabbed a Special Jury Prize.

A welcome addition on Main Street was New Frontier on Main, an exploration of experimental film work. R. Luke DuBois' Academy condenses each Oscar-winning feature film to one-minute, creating a 75-minute meditation on movies, while James Graham's You Are Here, a two-channel video installation, sits you in a bus terminal chair watching either skid row or Beverly Hills. Every installation was a true experience, and many were doc crossover works.

One of the panels I attended, Rights Licensing in the New Era of Distribution, addressed the changing media and distribution. David Strauss, CEO of Without A Box, kicked off the discussion with the best quote of the festival: "Whatever we say today can be different tomorrow." The panel stressed not to give anything away for free--even though all the traditional distributors want all rights, even if they don't know what to do with them. The other theme of the panel that kept popping up was that it's really the Wild West out there. Things are changing so fast, so make your own rules, don't make a bad deal and use all the rights to monetize revenue.    

I had a good experience this year, seeing more films than usual and taking time out to rest. But there are always parties to attend. The funny thing about Sundance parties, particularly if you're doing the doc circuit, is that you find yourself with the same people, only in different locations up and down Main Street and in condos, restaurants and bars. SXSW, PBS, POV, the Queer Brunch, Discovery, IDA/A&E, Sundance Channel, Kodak--it's all food and talking and drinking and hanging out. What makes a good party? Music that's not too loud, somewhere to stash your coat, good nibbles and drinks. 

Not enough to do at Sundance? Slamdance, X-Dance and the always free Tromadance were ever-present on Main Street this year as well. X-Dance had the biggest presence it's ever had with the action sports documentary For Right or Wrong (Matt Goodman, dir.), starring Jake Burton of Burton snowboards, and plenty of parties and awards to boot.

In between movies, I squeezed in a trip to the Queer Lounge, booted out of its previous, more convenient location near the main box office and into the Silver Queen hotel, where I bid on some art in a silent auction. The new home was bigger and more de luxe than ever, but its out-of-the-way locale made it difficult to ever get back there. I did win the painting, though!


Sarah Jo Marks can be reached at