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January 13, 2002 2:00 AM
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PARK CITY 2002: Docs That Make a Difference; Film as Activism

PARK CITY 2002: Docs That Make a Difference; Film as Activism

by Patricia Thomson



(indieWIRE/ 01.13.02) -- Documentary filmmakers at Sundance 2002 are a harried lot. Not only do they worry about the usual festival business -- sales, press, buzz, party invitations -- but they've got other matters on their minds. Like how to get people thinking about heavy stuff like capital punishment, gay rights, race relations, toxins in the environment, or unsolved murders in Mexico. And maybe, just maybe, getting them to do something about it.


While Sundance's documentary lineup always includes some lighter fare meant to entertain, the other end of the spectrum offers films with bigger ambitions. "When you make films about issues of social justice, you're not making them purely to be a storyteller, but to move and motivate people and to activate discussion," says Liz Garbus, director of "The Execution of Wanda Jean." How filmmakers accomplish that task can be as creative as the films themselves.


Take Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold's blue vinyl chips. Dangling from festive Mardi Gras beads, these remnants of Helfand's Long Island home are no doubt Park City's first tchotchkies that sport warning labels: "This is vinyl. Don't burn it and don't throw it away." The curious and alarmed can go to the web site for the HBO documentary "Blue Vinyl" [www.myhouseisyourhouse.com] where they can read all about the toxic trail that vinyl dioxide leaves behind.


But that's just the beginning of a larger campaign. For audience members riled up enough to "do something," Helfand and Gold are providing stamped postcards protesting the continued use of vinyl dioxide by Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works outside the screening room.


They're also using their time in Utah to bring the issue close to home. Not far from Park City is Davis Country, the site of Utah's largest municipal incinerator. By burning vinyl, the facility releases dioxins that damage the residents' lungs. On Friday, members of the 'bucket brigade' featured in "Blue Vinyl" came up from Louisiana to train Davis locals how to capture air samples for professional monitoring. On Tuesday, a special screening of "Blue Vinyl" takes place in the Davis County Library for Utah health workers and local press, organized by Heal Utah and FAIR (Families Against Incinerator Risk).


Helfand first saw the benefits of using Sundance to hook up with local grassroots organizations when she brought her personal documentary about DES (diethylstilbestrol) and cancer, "A Healthy Baby Girl," to the festival in 1997. Since then, she's been lending her expertise in outreach to other filmmakers through Working Films, a North Carolina-based organization she co-heads with Robert West.


One beneficiary is the filmmaking team of Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, here with "The Two Towns of Jasper," a film exploring the differing racial responses to the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. Partnering with ITVS's Community Connections Project and Working Films, the duo are showing a half-hour segment this Wednesday to the Utah state legislature as it begins to debate a hate-crimes bill.


"We've always been very committed to a broad-based outreach program," says Dow. Theirs will involve educational, community, activist, and institutional prongs in addition to a P.O.V. broadcast on PBS. Community outreach kicks off in Utah with a special screening hosted by an African American church in Salt Lake City on Monday. Previous work-in-progress screenings have "always sparked discussion," says Dow. "There are strong feelings about the [film's] approach and the crime." With these community forums they hope to establish a safe place for dialogue, where differences can be discussed and understood, not simply soap-boxed.


Arthur Dong is attempting much the same thing with "Family Fundamentals," which treads another political minefield: the relationship between gay children and their Fundamentalist Christian parents. Dong's advisory board, which includes both liberal and fundamentalist organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and Focus on Family, greatly helped the production process. The religious groups allowed him to gain access to subjects who might otherwise be wary of "Mr. Liberal from PBS," as Dong puts it. These groups will now be essential to the film's future life. "I don't want to preach to the converted," says Dong, whose outreach efforts will start with these organizations.


The Web is also an essential tool for social-issue documentarians who wish to funnel viewers to activist organizations already working on the same topic. Lourdes Portillo's site [www.lourdesportillo.com] links motivated viewers of her film "Señorita Estraviada" directly to groups working on the issue of 'the disappeared' in Latin America, and specifically on the hundreds of women who were mysteriously murdered in Juarez, Mexico. Portillo investigates the crimes in her documentary, also airing on P.O.V.


Likewise, Garbus' first step in the outreach campaign for "The Execution of Wanda Jean" is building a substantial website [upcoming on www.hbo.com/docs] with support from HBO. "We're asking the question, 'What is the ripple effect of the death penalty?'" Garbus explains. "We're going to have people a year later reflecting on the [execution]. We'll also provide links to organizations, so if someone wants to become a pen pal with somebody on death row, we're going to make that easy for them. Or if someone wants statistics, we'll make them easy to find." The website will be followed by the creation of study guides for high school and law students, educational distribution, and outreach targeted to the criminal justice community.


In the end, Sundance represents just the first step for documentarians whose aim is to give their films a long life in the hands of activists, educators, and organizations. That's why Arthur Dong, for one, isn't sweating ephemeral goals like festival buzz. "If my film was successful in reaching an audience, it'll have legs," he says. "'Sewing Woman' [Dong's 1983 short about his mother] is still out there. That's over 20 years now and I'm still getting royalty checks. That's what I can only hope for -- that the stories I tell have that kind of reach and longevity."

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