PARK CITY 2001: Byte Me!: Digital Features Explore New Narrative Techniques
by Scott Smith
(indieWIRE/01.24.01) -- Sundance Festival organizers could never be hailed as leaders in the exhibition of digital film, but this year they jumped into the electronic age with both feet. The explosion of digital features for this year's event signals a dramatic shift in the way these entries are submitted and selected. More than forty percent of the projects submitted for Sundance 2001 were shot on digital formats; that number is up from less than fifteen percent last year. Also, the introduction of high resolution digital projectors means that a dozen other selections that were shot on 35 mm or 16 mm film stock were spared the cost of making a show print, and instead opted for digital projection.
And the digital features, not to mention a variety of computer-generated shorts and animated features, aren't merely relegated to second-class status. On the contrary, they appear well integrated into every program, and ticket holders seem be nonplussed by the format of the work they are about to see.
Around Park City, mention of digital technology has been elevated from the obscure pamphlets once found in small coffeehouses to the official guidebooks distributed in the marquee pavilions. In fact, the most curious digital films are no longer the domain of off-shoot festivals that used to specialize in high-tech entries; the truly innovative digital features are part of the Sundance program itself.
It's long been thought that documentarians would all but abandon film stock for lightweight and longer running cameras. This year's round-up in the documentary category is tipped heavily towards digital feature-length subjects. Ironically, the well-received "Trembling Before G-D" by director Sandi DuBowski and the remarkable "Southern Comfort" by Kate Davis are both High-Def captures that were transferred to 35 mm for their screenings. More noteworthy, skateboard legend Stacy Peralta's hyper-kinetic "Dogtown and Z Boys" and the D.A. Pennebaker-produced "Startup.com" generate more discussion about their subject matter than the hot, glowing images produced by their video origins. Budgetary concerns over rising film production costs is the obvious reason most documentaries are shot on digital tape, but this rationale has reached the narrative programs as well.
"For us, it was pure economics," said Henry Barrial, director of "Some Body," shot with two Canon XL1 camcorders. "We had a very improvisational shoot, and using DV allowed us to extend the amount of footage and the number of takes, and although that's something we could have accomplished on film as well, it would have been for a much greater cost."
Even though Barrial is a relative latecomer to the DV revolution, and his shooting schedule took more than two years to complete, his movie still claims a first in Sundance history. Never before has the Dramatic Competition had a digital narrative candidate. But "Some Body," an exploration of the doomed relationships that follow a couple's break-up, is more than just a technological breakthrough for the category. It highlights a strain running through several digital features this year; the use of the new breed of portable equipment to enhance the theme of its subject matter. The visceral quality of a roving camera gives the film a documentary style for an intimacy that reinforces the story.
Likewise, the Dogme 95-certified "Fuckland" uses handheld footage in a promising new way. This intense film from Argentine director José Luis Marqués, running in the World Cinema program, is possibly the best use of digital technology ever devised for a narrative film. The entire premise of the film gets its power from a camcorder hidden at waist level by the protagonist. While the thought of unfiltered footage might make an audience cringe, it's obvious that Marqués carefully crafted many of the compositions (as well as the use of wide angle lenses) to seem at once both inelegant and wonderfully framed.
While "Fuckland" may appear to have a lock on the "Most Frightening Use of a DV Camera" award, a close contender is the role digital cameras play within the context of Billy Corben's devisive and stomach-turning, "Raw Deal: A Question of Consent" in the American Spectrum showcase. Corben presents a stripper's sexual abuse at a fraternity ritual by using actual footage shot by participants at the scene of the alleged crime. His controversial decision to display graphic and lewd sex acts caught on tape strangely parallels the highly-questionable motives of law enforcement officials who released the evidence to the public under Florida's liberal "Sunshine" laws. Audiences are left to wonder if the camera operators at the party are any different than a director who chooses this footage as the core argument of his documentary.
These films alone are a clear indication that DV cameras and technologies are not simply making feature films more affordable, but in many cases more intellectually challenging for the modern moviegoer. Next week, Smith reports on the rest of the digital entries, from Agenda 2000's "Manic" to InDigEnt's Sundance entries.