PARK CITY 2002: Docs Dominate in the Shorts Category
by Tim LaTorre
(indieWIRE/ 01.15.02) -- What's always been most interesting about the Sundance experience is how the festival's overall character changes from year to year as a result of its programming. The shorts section has always been a good place to spot new trends. This year, gems can be found in the animation, experimental, narrative comedy and drama categories, but it's the documentaries that stand out.
With the short format, efficiency is key. While narrative shorts carry the sometimes unmanageable burden of developing characters in an abbreviated amount of time, documentaries are not as constrained by dramatic requirements.
Two of the strongest non-fiction shorts in this year's festival are Cassandra Herrman and Katy Shrout's "American Exile" and Gina and Ané Vecchione's "Trip to Tehuacan." "Exile" tracks down former Black Panther Pete O'Neal, who fled the U.S. after receiving a questionable 4-year conviction for transporting a shotgun across state lines. Now living in Tanzania, the '60s radical maintains ties to his native Kansas City by hosting a community center for Tanzanian youth and at-risk Kansas City teenagers.
Vecchione's "Trip to Tehuacan" is an exploration of the emotional impact of the Mercy Outreach Surgical Team, "a volunteer group dedicated to providing medical and surgical care to indigent children and adults of other nations." The interactions between the doctors and their patients, many of whom are afflicted with debilitating birth defects, is deeply touching.
Documentaries have always been especially effective at highlighting forgotten pieces of our collective history. This year's slate includes two films that deal with mid-20th century American photography: Robert A. Nakamura's "Toyo Miyatake: Infinite Shades of Gray" and Jeanine Isabel Butler and Alastair Reilly's "Documenting the Face of America."
"Toyo Miyake" is a fascinating look at an artist's life through his own images, home movies and interviews with family and friends. Miyake's story is interesting for both his beautiful body of work as well as how his life embodies the struggles of Japanese Americans in the Los Angeles area, including wartime internment. Similarly, "Documenting the Face of America" (part of the Sundance Online Film Festival) uses the words of American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks to recall an important time in the history of American photojournalism, when the Farm Security Administration hired photographers to document the harsh realities of the Great Depression.
Occasionally, a documentary's strengths come not from it's formal qualities, but from the sheer exuberance of the life that it captures. Two films that capture this quality are Melissa Regan's "No Dumb Questions" and Brett Froomer's "A Stoner's Life." From a production quality standpoint, "No Dumb Questions" is a bit rough around the edges, coming off as an extended family home video. However, the intimacy of the format allows its three young female subjects to communicate freely on an uncomfortable topic: why their Uncle Bill is becoming Aunt Barbara. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Froomer's 60-second "A Stoner's Life" is a funny little romp in which the filmmaker and some elderly subjects laugh together about the incoherence and unique mannerisms of a pot-oriented lifestyle.
In the narrative category, Brin Hill's "Morning Breath: A Brooklyn Love Story" and JT Walker's "Passengers" stand out as a result of their unique approach. "Morning Breath" is a powerful demonstration of how good design, beautiful imagery, strong performances and an original story work together to create a successful drama. The film focuses on a poem by SirmuMs (a.k.a. Craig Grant), which follows a young African American man struggling with the conflicting worlds of romantic love and street credibility. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen's visuals are particularly noteworthy, capturing the appropriate coolness of the street through his use of strong blue hues. "Passengers" is a humorous dialogue-free story of subway passengers who share a moment of community when a feather floats into their daily commute; it's particularly effective in its strong use of visuals and character mannerisms. Other dramatic narrative films of note (available for pre-screening) include Moh Azima's slick and quirky "TRAPPEDINFREEDOM" and Amalia Zarranz' sweet basketball story, "TALLgirl."
On the experimental frontier, David Russo's "Populi" is an extravaganza of pixelation. Using Gustav Holst's haunting composition "Mars: Bringer of War," Russo energizes the screen by focusing the audience's eye on a sculpted human form while animating the real world as his ever-changing background canvas. Through precise movements, he achieves miraculous camera movement and flawless transitions that add to the overall fluidity of the piece.
No short film slate would be complete without odd little pieces that cause more than a chuckle. This year, those laughs come in the form of Peter Spears' "Ernest and Bertram" and Robbie Chafitz's "Time Out" (both films are screening at the festival and as part of the Showcase section of the Online Festival). "Ernest and Bertram" uncovers the secret life of certain childhood icons whose true lifestyles have recently come in to question. Similarly, Chafitz's "Time Out" looks at childhood predicaments as interpreted by intense adult actors.
2002 marks the second year that Sundance has sponsored an Online Festival (http://www.sundanceonlinefilmfestival.org/) to test out this new delivery medium. Sponsored principally by AtomFilms using Microsoft's Windows Media Player, the streaming quality is surprisingly good. The real find here is Billy Blob's Flash-animated "Karma Ghost," which follows its main character Pete as he continues to pile up bad karma. The piece demonstrates how original online-only content can be when it works. Other Online Film Festival gems include three pieces from the unique MTV-infused news delivery service Guerilla News Network and Marco Bertoldo's spooky, animated "Gone Bad - Episode 2."