By Indiewire | Indiewire January 22, 2007 at 3:43AM
As the opening weekend of Sundance 2007 came to a close, buyers were circling a number of new festival films. As usual, the first few of days saw a number of acquisitions. As announced on Sunday in indieWIRE, The Weinstein Company quickly jumped on James C. Strouse's Sundance dramatic competition feature "Grace is Gone," nabbing worldwide rights for $4 million and making it the fest's first on-site deal announcement. Meanwhile, Magnolia Pictures has just confirmed its mid-six figure pact for Dan Klores's Sundance dramatic competition feature "Crazy Love." In other deals, Fox Searchlight is preparing to announce its acquisition of George Ratlff's Sundance dramatic competition title, "Joshua". Numerous people close to the film were preparing the announcement overnight as the film screened in a late slot at the Park City Library on Sunday night. And Amir Bar-Lev's doc competition title "My Kid Could Paint That" was closing in on a theatrical deal late Sunday with those close to the film seeing competitive bidding for the film.
Late Sunday on the party circuit, rumors spread that the Weinstein Company had struck again, this time grabbing Mitchell Lichtenstein's "Teeth", but indieWIRE was unable to confirm a deal. Finally, a source close to a pair of other Sundance features noted that both David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels" and the late Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" were in play as the weekend came to a close. And over at Slamdance, Variety reported a pact for the competition doc "King of Kong", which the trade paper said was nabbed by New Line and Picturehouse.
Docs remained a hot topic in Park City this year, with press and industry focusing on "The Devil Came on Horseback," Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's new doc about ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Insiders expect to close a deal soon here in Park City.
Darfur Doc Stirs Talk
The crisis in Darfur was in the spotlight on Saturday afternoon in Park City at a press conference that included filmmakers Sundberg and Stern (who returned to Sundance after last year's "The Trials of Darryl Hunt"), along with actress Mia Farrow, photographer Brian Steidle, who is the subject of the film, and others. Citing the film as "the closest as you are going to get to breaking news," Sundance Institute doc head Cara Mertes praised the movie and asked the directors to discuss the genocide in the Sudan.
Speaking about the film's subject Brian Steidle, Annie Sundberg praised him as an important window into the tragic situation. "Brian has sa story that is so fresh and unique for us because it is difficult to bring American audiences to the point of engagement or involvement into African stories and Brian was that voice." She continued, saluting him for being, "impassioned and emboldened" by what he saw in Darfur.
UNICEF goodwill ambassador and actress Mia Farrow, who has traveled to Darfur a few times, also spoke out on the issue at the weekend press conference, explaining that she is here to relate what she has seen and learned. "Brian Steidle's story has almost mythic proportions," Farrow detailed, relating how Steidle found himself witnessing genocide in the Sudan.
For his part, Brian Steidle expressed overwhelming appreciation for the "amazing opportunity to come here and try to tell my story."
Concluding opening remarks at the press conference, Sundberg said succinctly, "Our hope is that Sundance can awaken people to this issue and to Darfur."
Clips from the press conference are included in the latest iW: Video episode from Park City.
Prisoner Abuse Explored in Abu Ghraib Doc
Another documentary tackling contemporary issues is the Sundance documentary competition doc, "The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib." While leaving the premiere screening of the film, a fellow festival attendee asked me about my reaction to the movie. I felt awkward saying it was terrific considering the chilling footage and first-person accounts of torture and cover-up told from the points of view of prisoners held in the notorious Iraqi incarceration center as well as their American guards. While the shame of Abu Ghraib is now a dark blemish on American history, Kennedy's inside look at the abuses and systematic concealment of what happened serves as a small step toward redemption by allowing the full scope of what happened there--which has yet to be fully exposed in the popular press--to be disclosed.
The film, an HBO documentary, traces the path to Abu Ghraib by looking back at the Bush Administration's response following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The Administration adopted a policy of intelligence gathering at any cost, ignoring the rules of the Geneva Convention that the United States signed on to decades earlier. The consequences of that decision were grossly manifested in the infamous photos of abuse and humiliation that came out of the prison. What is worse is the photos shown around the world only represent the tip of the iceberg in the extent of cruelty that occurred, destroying the U.S.'s once proud reputation as a bastion of human rights.
"This film is about Abu Ghraib, but it's also about America and who we are as a country," said Kennedy during the audience Q&A in Park City following the first screening of her film. "I hope we examine the policies that are still in place that allowed Abu Ghraib to happen."
Kennedy hopes the film will encourage discussion about America's traditional role as a leader in the civilized world's pursuit of human rights. "I want us to maintain our [identity] as a country that respects human rights, a [characteristic] we built over 200 years."
When asked by an audience member which three people on earth she wishes could be forced to see "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" from start to finish, Kennedy emphatically said, "George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld," then adding, "and probably a prosecutor." [Brian Brooks]
Smiling With Araki
On a much lighter note, Sundance veteran Gregg Araki came to Sundance with "Smiley Face," a lighthearted departure from his acclaimed "Mysterious Skin." The stoner comedy captures a day in the life of young slacker (played by Anna Faris) after she eats about a dozen pot-filled cupcakes. Unveiled in front of a raucous late night audience at the Park City Library on Saturday, the film was clearly a hit with attendees. Chatting with indieWIRE the next day, Araki was thrilled with the reaction.
"I love the movie so much and I am so proud of it and I just really wanted to get a reaction," Araki explained, about his anticipation for bringing "Smiley Face" to Sundance, he added, "A movie is not really a movie until there is an audience."
Shot from a long languishing script by Dylan Haggerty, Araki jumped on the project after its option expired five years after he first read it, shooting the movie in 22 days and setting his sights on getting the movie to Sundance '07.
Following "Mysterious Skin," Araki said that he really wanted to do something completely diferent, (something) not so dark and not so serious and more fun." After getting the script and agreeing to a low-budget approach with writer Haggerty, Araki said that he set his sights on Anna Faris, knowing that she'd be perfect for the role.
"There would be no 'Smiley Face' without Anna," Araki praised.
As for Sundance, Araki explained that he is even more indebted to the Sundance Film Festival where he has screened many of his films. "I owe them my whole career, this is my seventh movie here," Araki added, "They really kind of put me on the map."
"Smiley Face" will open in April from First Look Pictures.
All Tomorrow's Parties...
Park City's Main Street has traditionally been a swamp of cars dumping off people who jam into party venues and/or wander the street in search of the good times. Well this year, the scenesters again turned out in droves for the first weekend of Sundance. On the more civilized end, Picturehouse hosted a tasty dinner in honor of "Rocket Science" at Wahso on Main. After the feast, some invitees wandered down to the Hollywood Life House on lower Main to join the throngs waiting to get inside the venue for the party for Tommy O'Haver's "An American Crime."
Magnolia Pictures hosted their equally enjoyable dinner for "Broken English" at Chimayo on Saturday, but the first sizeable party on the roster began afterward at the Premiere Lounge (located this year at Riverhorse Cafe) and celebrating "Smiley Face." The party rocked, no real controversy. Araki quickly abandoned the designated VIP area and plunged into the crowd for most of the night, taking photos and chatting up friends.
Just before 11pm, some headed down to the Village at the Lift for the AE Whiteout/UTA party. Arctic temperatures didn't scare away many hoping to get in as the queue quickly stretched far up the block. At one point, a security person announced that invitees wearing wristbands could enter the party immediately, leaving the merely invited out cold --- or so it seemed because many decided to head out.
Sunday saw the return of that venerable institution of morning debauchery, the Queer Brunch, hosted by Outfest and Here! OK, maybe not exactly "debauchery," but the bloody marys flowed and there was plenty to eat for the roughly hundreds of RSVPs who packed into the Grubsteak near the Sundance headquarters at the Park City Marriott. With a red carpet, roaming camera crews (including ours), throngs of industry, filmmakers and a sprinkling of celebs, it's hard to imagine the Queer Brunch started out a decade ago as an event for anyone who showed up--and that year, about 50 people came.
Probably the best time to be had in Park City were the nightly impromptu get togethers at a popular industry insider's condo. No line-ups, no attitude... just an easy walk to join the dozen or so filmmakers, insiders, press and whoever in a game of poker peppered with a drink (or two or three) of Prosecco as the night passed by...
Inside indieWIRE On the Scene: Park City
NOTEBOOK | With a Strong Emphasis on Storytelling, Columbia University Filmmakers Dominate the Shorts Programs at This Year's Sundance
Kim Adelman gives a overview of some of the short films at Sundance and examines the abundance of young filmmakers representing Columbia University.
REVIEW | Forecasting the End: Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand's "Everything's Cool"
Steve Ramos finds that "Everything's Cool" misses the mark, writing, "Global warming is a serious topic but Gold and Helfand treat it lightly. It's a fair decision on their part, one true to their filmmaking modus operandi of their best-known film "Blue Vinyl." "Everything's Cool" is comical and eye-catching, bouncy and bubbly, best summed up as Comedy Central-style documentary filmmaking. It's a polished diversion; nothing more and a missed opportunity to offer a new take on the global warming debate."
REVIEW | It Happened in Sao Paulo: Jason Kohn's "Manda Bala"
Steve Ramos reviews Jason Kohn's documentary about the violence and cooruption of a beautiful country."Manda Bala" is spider web moviemaking in the spirit of a Samba dance," writes Ramos, "...its standout images are its scenes of vast economic disparity, a gleaming modern, high-rise apartment building standing at the edge of a filthy shanty village. As is often the case with film smorgasbords, some of the players shine brighter than others."
REVIEW | The Return of the Oppressed: The Haunting "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"
Anthony Kaufman reviews Rory Kennedy's latest documentary, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib". "What's more effective? Examining a photograph of naked men stacked up in a pyramid with a young female soldier in the background, smiling and giving a thumbs up? Or watching Military Police officer Sabrina Harman, the woman in the photograph, talking about how the photograph came to be?" Kaufman writes. He finds that the films visual experience is "an entirely new and vital one."
REVIEW | What Women Want: Zoe Cassavetes' "Broken English"
Steve Ramos reviews Zoe Cassavetes' film "Broken English", and describes how even though Zoe Cassavetes will always battle comparisons, the "unabashed women's comedy" is "a likable romp with just enough chuckles [which] earns Cassavetes status as a moviemaker with potential."
INTERVIEW | Matthew Saville: "What fascinated me was the pall, the painful, unspeakable silence that consumed the country..."
The Sundance World Dramatic Competition director of "Noise" (Matthew Saville) describes his beginnings as a guerrilla filmmaker in Australia, and how unexpected moments can help a film flourish in his interview in today's indieWIRE.
INTERVIEW | Christopher Zalla: "I wanted the audience to feel like the movie could really go in any direction at any moment."
The Sundance Dramatic Competition director of "Padre Nuestro" (Christopher Zalla) talks about the effect of his nomadic childhood on his filmmaking, why he considers New York City to be a character in his film, and how blurring the line between hero and villain was a huge challenge in his interview in today's indieWIRE.
INTERVIEW | David Stenn: "From the start, I felt outrage: first rape victim Patricia Douglas is denied justice, then her historic case gets buried."
The Sundance Documentary Competition director of "Girl 27" (David Stenn) discusses what drove him to make the film, and his succinct definition of independent film in his interview in today's indieWIRE.
INTERVIEW | Daniel Gordon: "Finally meeting Americans who were fully fledged citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has to go down as one of the most surreal of my life..."
The Sundance World Documentary Competition director of "Crossing the Line" (Daniel Gordon) talks about how his film fits into his "loose trilogy" on North Korea, and his basic approach to documentary filmmaking in his interview in today's indieWIRE.
Get the latest coverage of Park City '07 in indieWIRE's special section here at indieWIRE.com