Dispatch From Sundance: Robert Redford Defends Sundance, Doc News and John Sayles on Politics
by Eugene Hernandez and Wendy Mitchell
Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures,” the controversial new book that looks at the explosion of independent and Indiewood films in the ’90s, has had the film community buzzing since it hit stores earlier this month. The title offers a critical take on the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax, entities that Biskind calls the “twin towers of the indie world.” With insider commentary, the author also offers unflattering portraits of Sundance’s Robert Redford and Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein.
“Judged by one of its original, loftier goals, an institute to help outsiders, Sundance has failed,” Biskind wrote in one of his harsher critiques of the festival. “Women, Native Americans, African-Americans and the poor still don’t have equal access to the camera.”
Indirectly, but consistently during the past few days here at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Institute president Robert Redford seems to be trying to remind attendees of the accomplishments of this festival, while at the same time re-stating its agenda.
During remarks on opening night Redford singled out the diversity of the festival as it strength. In his comments he explained that early festival critics said that an event with such a diverse programming agenda would not succeed. Thursday night Redford countered, “Diversity has made this thing very commercial.”
During a conversation with indieWIRE for our initial report on the book, Peter Biskind clarified, “In terms of what they [Sundance] started out to do they failed… but I think it turned into something else which is still valuable.” Continuing he added, “I think that [Sundance], for the all the problems, is extremely valuable — you’d have to be an idiot not to acknowledge that.” But in the book he added, “A lot of that good work is undone by the frenzy of the festival.”
During Thursday night’s opening remarks, Redford highlighted the festival’s focus on freedom of expression and noted its growth to include more documentaries and international cinema, and said, “Our process, people and results speak for itself.”
Wrapping up his remarks on Thursday, with his characteristic grin, Redford briefly addressed Biskind’s book with a passing quip, “Later on I’ll be joining Harvey Weinstein at a book-signing party.” [Eugene Hernandez]
THE LATEST NEWS
Film Fest Syndicated… The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is partnering with Ira Deutchman’s Emerging Pictures to launch a nationally syndicated film fest that will hit digital cinemas in as many as 20 cities at the same time as the Full Frame fest in Durham, N.C.
“Emerging Pictures is enabling Full Frame to be at the forefront of the use of new technologies to bring cutting edge documentary work to audiences in places where such films rarely play — and to show them the way the are meant to be seen, on the big screen,” said Full Frame festival founder Nancy Buirski in a statement Saturday. Organizers noted, “the deal will allow audiences throughout the country for the first time to simultaneously participate in a world class film festival.”
Discovery and Camera Planet Announce First Doc… Peter Gilbert is exploring the significance of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in “All Deliberate Speed” (working title), a documentary that is the first from a partnership between the Discovery network and New York’s CameraPlanet production company. In an announcement Saturday, the companies said that the movie will debut in theaters on May 14th, to mark the 50th anniversary of the decision on May 17th.
Seventh Art Gets Slamdance Doc… Worldwide rights to Philip Anagnos’ first feature, “Haack: The King of Techno,” have been acquired by Seventh Art Releasing. The Slamdance film looks at the of Haack’s career as the “undisputed father of electronic music.”
SAYLES ON PLANNING AND POLITICS
If there’s anyone appropriate to teach a master class at Sundance, it would be indie stalwart John Sayles, who will be leading a talk on “the art of the possible” on Wednesday at Sundance’s Filmmaker Lodge. Sayles, the director of such works as “The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Lone Star,” “City of Hope,” “Passion Fish,” and “Casa de Los Babys,” will be talking about making the most of a low budget. “I’m actually pretty good at teaching, although it’s not my favorite thing to do,” Sayles told indieWIRE. “But it’s a good place to do this kind of thing, where there are a lot of people who are not necessarily going to get handed a big Hollywood budget.” One lesson he’s learned during his 20+ years as a filmmaker is “The less money you have to do an ambitious movie, the better planning you have to do. You can even plan for spontaneity.”
Sayles will illustrate some points by showing scenes from his latest film, “Silver City.” The film, about political intrigue and an unsolved murder, was shot in six weeks on a budget of about $5 million and does not yet have a distributor. Chris Cooper stars as a gubernatorial candidate in Colorado, and the ensemble cast also includes Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Daryl Hannah, Danny Huston, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth, and others.
Cooper’s character, according to Sayles, is based partially on President Bush, and while the filmmaker said he won’t be voting for Bush in ’04, he added that he’s not backing any particular candidate as of yet. “You look for someone who seems to be saying the kind of things for the kind of country you would like to live in,” the director said. Sayles is one of the notables co-hosting a Sundance party this week for MoveOn.org, an online network devoted to political activism.
“My disappointment with corporate media has increased over the years,” Sayles said, noting that during the recent invasion of Iraq he turned to news sources such as the BBC News and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” He explains, “I think at the Sundance Festival there are a lot of people on the verge of becoming part of the corporate media — some may never choose to or be able to become part of that world — and it’s a good thing to hook them up with MoveOn, which is about finding ways to share information about what is going on in the world.” [Wendy Mitchell]