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Far From the Madding Crowds: Ten Years On, Slamdance Still Screens Edgy Work – with No Wait Lists

By Sarah Jo Marks

From Chris Maher's 'Habana Holiday' (Yo Soy Malo). Courtesy of Chris Maher.

Park City, Utah, has a population of just over 7,000 people, but when the Sundance crowds—whom the locals refer to as "the people in black"—arrive every January, the population mushrooms—this year to nearly 50,000. This makes for a pretty crowded little place. Everyone needs to lodge, eat, ski and, naturally, watch movies. Regardless of the fact that Sundance screened about 150 films this year, nearly everything was sold out, with people lining up for the infamous wait-list tickets up to two hours in advance. For many people, there was just no getting in.

But at the Treasure Mountain Inn at the top of historic Main Street, the 10th Annual Slamdance Film Festival was not turning people away, not selling overpriced tickets and not giving anyone preferential treatment. Slamdance was the festival for the people, programming edgy work, showcasing new filmmakers and premiering a palatable amount of brand spanking new documentary projects.          

For me, the fun began with Mark Neale's Faster (Robert Koehler, prod.), a superbly done doc about the MotoGP motorcycle race, something I knew nothing about.  The film screened out of competition to a scant audience who ooh'd and ahh'd over the sheer velocity on display in this vibrant piece. The music thumped to the beat as competitors in special kangaroo-skin suits traversed the terrifying tracks on motorcycles, steering with both their wheels and their knees as they scraped along the ground. Just breathtaking.

With my adjustment to the altitude came a full day of movies on day two. In 2003 the documentary short subjects were hidden among the short programs, but this year they were on full display. Each doc feature had its own short to accompany it. And Elena Elmoznino's Freestyle, a 24-minute doc about people who teach their dogs to dance, took me to a new place, where dogs and their owners make up dance routines and compete with Olympic dreams in their hearts. Freestyle earned the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Short, while the feature with which it was paired, Bruce Haack: King of Techno (Philip Anagnos, prod./dir.), about the ‘60s techno guru, secured a deal with niche distributor Seventh Art Releasing.

My inner editor loved watching both Todd Pottinger's Big City Dick (Ken Harder, Scott Milam, co-dirs.), about street musician Richard Peterson, and Travis Klose's Arakimentari (Jason Fried, prod.), a look at the life and work of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Both overly long films have terrific subject matter, great music and that little something extra that leaves you breathless as the story unfolds on the screen.

Audiences loved Peterson for his trumpet playing and his stalking of celebrities, ranging from singer Johnny Mathis to actor Jeff Bridges. The film won the Audience Sparky Award for Best Film in the doc category.

Slamdance is not big on history projects; nearly every film in the competition was a fairly personal and art-based film. The Watershed, Mary Trunk's family history cum therapy doc, is a beautiful example of stylized filmmaking. Using old family photos and footage, Trunk crafted the heartfelt tale of her relationship with her mother, sisters and other immediate family members as they descended from prosperity to welfare in a mere decade.

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (Chris Metzler, prod./dir.; Jeff Springer, dir.), about the decline and decay of a once-thriving Southern California resort, also broke my heart, with its bold images and down-home community. 

Brett Ingram's Monster Road, the Grand Jury Sparky Award Winner for Best Documentary Feature, tells the story of claymation animator Bruce Bickford and his struggle to live his life as an artist. This fascinating film pairs the stories from his life with his incredible animations toward a very moving outcome. 

Other shorts on the Slamdance slate included some eye-opening ruminations on the American flag in Andy Schocken's Old Glory and Chris Maher's controversial Habana Holiday (Yo Soy Malo), which compares US/Cuba relations with the sex life of the HIV+ filmmaker (be prepared for full frontal male nudity!).

Kelly Duda's Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, which investigates the sale of tainted blood from infected prisoners, did not screen publicly due to a court-imposed injunction forbidding Slamdance from screening the film. This was extremely unfortunate. The short that was to have preceded it, Katherin McInnis' Model Prisoner (which I eventually watched on video at home and was sorry I didn't get to see it with an audience) uses the 1,879 cross-sectional images of the human body made for the Visible Human Project and, in a unique fashion, explains where they came from. Using downloaded data, archival footage, original video with 2- and 3-D animation, the film examines the body and the death row prisoner who donated it to science.

Overall the films at Slamdance 2004 were raw—sometimes maybe even a little too raw for audiences. But the opportunity to screen work at this stage in a venue as perfect (minus the hard seats) as Slamdance is one in a million. It's a respected festival worldwide and the ideal foil to Sundance's wait lists. If you can't make it to a Slamdance screening next year while in Park City, at least order a festival program for $3. It's a good reference tool and a great way to find undiscovered filmmakers—especially in a crowd of 50,000.


Sarah Jo Marks is currently producing two documentary projects. She is also a distribution consultant for IFP/Los Angeles and a film festival enthusiast. She can be reached at