Any concern about the potential for documentaries at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival seems to be dissipating in the early days of the event. Doc deals have dominated industry talk (so far), with a number of other pacts announced and also pending. Zeitgeist nabbed Yung Chang's "Up The Yanghtze" and HBO scored rights to Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' "The Black List," while The Weinstein Company just secured a pact for international rights to Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," with a domestic deal expected soon and late today announced a deal for Susan Koch's "Kicking It." Finally, Nanette Burnstein's "American Teen" is stirring serious interest with a deal potential coming tonight (Saturday).
Surveying the first screenings of a few anticipated new docs at Sundance, indieWIRE takes a closer look at Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," Peter Galison and Robb Moss's "Secrecy" and Edet Belzberg's "The Recruit" (formerly known as "An American Soldier").
Polanski Doc Garners Praise; Buyer Interest
Nearly a decade after the sensational murder of his beautiful wife, actress Sharon Tate, by the Manson family, celebrated director Roman Polanski was again the subject of a media onslaught after being convicted of statutory rape with a 13 year-old girl in 1977. What followed was a salacious mix of trumped up headlines, frenzied reporters and an attention-starved judge much more eager to satisfy his own desires to tap into the celebrity mix, than adjudicating justice.
The Oscar-winning "Rosemary's Baby" director's outrageous roller coaster trial is the subject of director Marina Zenovich's gripping Sundance competition doc "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which had its world premiere in Park City, UT last night (Friday). Brilliantly edited and exquisitely compiled using archival footage along with present-day interviews with figures intricately involved with the trial, the screening was packed with buyers, press and industry who were riveted with the story of fame and tragedy that is not unlike today's celebrity obsessed media fixation.
The film was the subject of immediate buyer interest after its world premiere, with The Weinstein Company quickly acquiring international rights and a deal for North American distribution pending Saturday as this article went to press.
"I got the idea [for the film] five years ago this month," said Zenovich (director of "Who is Bernard Tapie" and "Independent's Day"), during a post-screening Q&A Friday night at Park City's Holiday Village cinema. "For me, [this film] is about people, and I told the people [involved with this case] that the story had never been properly told. It's not just a story about Roman Polanski, it's about these people and the case." Zenovich and her producers eagerly conveyed their desire to not turn the film into an "'Inside Edition' or Fox News report" when telling the story, which most likely helped their cause in completing the film by gaining access.
While the Polanski interviews in the film are archival, the director - who now lives in virtual exile in France - appears to have given tacit approval as Zenovich was able to speak extensively with Polanski's lawyer, Douglas Dalton, in addition to the prosecuting attorney Roger Gunson (who agrees the trial proceedings became a sham), as well as some of the director's high-profile friends (among them Mia Farrow).
Zenovich also speaks with the now adult Samantha (Gailey) Geimer, the victim in the case, who complained that the judge was only worried about his own celebrity.
While Polanski's legacy is still open for debate, the documentary received a rapturous seal of approval after its debut, with some industry insiders beaming, "this is an Oscar nomination for sure..." Another leading industry figure, who spoke with indieWIRE after Saturday morning's press and industry showing, said that it as time for the industry to forgive Polanski and put the sordid affair in the past once and for all.
Speaking about the continued intrigue decades after the sensational headlines first splashed across the Western-world's papers, the film's German-born D.P. Tanja Koop told indieWIRE, at a post-screening cocktail party, that public judgement of Polanski is distinctly different in the U.S. than in Europe generally. "In Europe, there's a greater appreciation for the complexity of the situation. There's a different approach to morals and ethics... [and] I remember being young myself and I wouldn't judge somebody..." [Brian Brooks]
Exploring the World of Government "Secrecy"
"Secrecy is a problem and an issue for every government in the world," noted filmmaker Peter Galison at the Q&A following the world premiere screening of his documentary "Secrecy," which he directed with award winning documentary maker Robb Moss. Galison and Moss, both Harvard professors as well as filmmakers, collaborated on this new project which takes a sometimes cerebral, balanced look at the world of classified information that exists within the United States government and in this post cold war, post 9/11 environment, continues to grow at an astonishing pace, threatening civil liberties while also bringing into question the effectiveness of hiding so much information from the public.
Utilizing animation, artist installations, and interviews with a number of former government intelligence agents about the need for secrecy to fight terrorism as well as citizens who are seeking more details about the death of loved ones in classified military accidents, "Secrecy" offers a balanced view of the need to classify certain information as well as the argument that more transparency in intelligence is needed to actually provide stronger security and keep a voting public informed.
Noting the dangers of secrecy, Robb Moss said, "I think the issue of embarrassment and incompetence that's precipitated by secrecy can then fold over into criminal activities such as at Abu Ghraib." The film also points to the 9/11 Commission's assessment that the lack of shared information between governmental units contributed to the American intelligence community's inability to "connect the dots" and prevent the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
On the flip side of this coin, "Secrecy" offers examples of where exposing secrets has been detrimental to fighting terrorism, and an example is used where when the press exposed a source of information regarding the embassy attack in Beirut in 1983, which impacted the government in preventing a later attack on the US military abroad that resulted in numerous deaths.
Regarding the challenge in conveying this shadowy world of government intelligence, Moss said, "Making a film about secrecy, it's nothing you can see. It's a world completely kept from view. We felt like in a way we could feel the contours of this world, we could describe it, but it sort of feeling in the dark. And that feeling of hermetic sealed closed evocative, allusive seemed to represent to us the kind of animation that would be like wood cuts or scratching on something where there's something just under the surface that you can't quite see that you get at."
Continuing, Moss said, "It's a kind of mood, it's not a world we know, we're not representing it in a overwhelming way. In a sense it's speculation. In that sense it's essayistic. It's a visually speculative idea." [James Israel]
Soldier and Recruiter
A Sundance audience may not seem to be the natural one for a film about military recruiters, but director Edet Belzberg's latest, "The Recruiter" (former known as "An American Soldier") seemed to garner approval Friday afternoon in Park City. Five years into the Iraq war and with military recruitment plunging, Belzberg, whose "Children Underground" won a special jury prize in 2001 at Sundance, focuses on the diverse stories of four military recruits in rural Houma, Louisiana.
Filmed over a year and-a-half, their stories begin with their lives in high school, where charismatic Sergeant First Class Clay Usie nurtured their eventual deployment, taking on the role as friend, big brother and personal cheerleader. Usie is one of the U.S. Army's top recruiters who combines his sincere belief in his mission with his knack for salesmanship to funnel young people into the Army.
"Sergeant Usie really believes in what he's doing," said Bulzberg during Q&A after the screening, and admitting that she personally has misgivings with the Army's recruitment tactics. "I do have huge problems with [the way] the recruitment process works. It's not a fully volunteer Army." [Brian Brooks]
INTERVIEW | Nacho Vigalondo, director of "TimeCrimes"
"Success in art is surviving doing stuff that would't exist if you didn't exist," explained "TimeCrimes" director Nacho Vigalondo told indieWIRE, in a recent interview. His first feature, screening as part of the Park City at Midnight series, takes on time travel, but Vigalondo explains the project is so much more than that. "We tried to put together the inhuman complexity of a time travel paradox with the mundane, almost comical, reactions of average characters... We wanted to do a film with few elements, and played with aesthetics just to make it atemporal and abstract. One friend told me 'you've made Tarkovski for teenagers.' I love that!"
INTERVIEW | Alex Rivera, Director of "Sleep Dealer"
"I've found that, to depict political realities, I sometimes need to use the tools of fantasy," explained "Sleep Dealer" director Alex Rivera told indieWIRE, in a recent interview. His first feature, screening in competition, looks at immigrant stories, which Rivera explained are his focus. "In my work, animation does as much to represent an immigrant's mind-space as the documentary camera does. Sometimes laughter opens an audience to reflection. And pop-culture genres like science-fiction are repurposed, forced to look at realities at the margins of our world. I try to let my thematic objectives drive my digital experiments."
INTERVIEW | Steven Schachter, Director of "The Deal"
"The most unique aspect of this film is the film within the film parts, so it was very tricky trying to figure out how much equipment we could steal from ourselves and how much crew," said "The Deal" director Steven Schachter told indieWIRE, a recent interview, in of his Hollywood romp, which is screening at Sundance. "It was pretty hairy," he admits. "Sometimes we'd just grab someone and say, 'OK, you're the Czech First A.D.' -- only because he was the Czech dialect coach, and the only one who actually spoke Czech. Ultimately, it was great fun to watch our crew work in front of the camera and the authenticity they brought to their jobs was priceless and they had a great time as well."
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.