PARK CITY 2002: Image Innovators; Sundance Pioneers Soar Beneath the Radar
by Liz Mermin
(indieWIRE/ 01.16.02) -- With all the talk at Sundance about looking for something new, many of the most innovative films remain beneath the radar. It's not well known, but there are experimental films at the festival, mostly in the "Frontier" section. "I like expanding people's minds," says programmer Shari Frilot, explaining the inclusion of some more enigmatic and challenging films. At a time when the mantra of commercial film and television is "story, story, story," there are still some films that captivate viewers with form.
A number of the filmmakers who take this approach have backgrounds in the visual arts, and they aren't primarily concerned with creating stories that will sell. It can be a relief as a viewer to be taken seriously once in a while, and these films respect their audiences enough to ask them to do some interpretive work. But that doesn't mean these filmmakers don't want their films seen and distributed.
"I wouldn't want to ghettoize this film," says Bill Morrison of his feature "Decasia." A mesmerizing 70 minutes, "Decasia" is composed of decaying film footage from archives around the country, often with spectacular bubbles and distortions, and cut to an original symphonic score by Michael Gordon.
If you read the program notes, you know that it's an exploration of our relation to mortality; but trying to figure out what this film is about is part of the pleasure of watching it. "It oversteps the bounds of [the audience's] normal cinematic experience, and people appreciate that," Morrison explains. Those who don't are usually out of the theater by the end of the first reel. But many of those who stay linger on to discuss the film's themes long after the Q&A is over. Morrison, a Cooper Union graduate with four short films in the permanent collection of MoMA, hopes this film will show in theaters, because of the positive audience response it has received.
Reynold Reynolds and Paddy Jolly's surreal 10-minute short "Burn," in which residents of a burning apartment building go slowly and silently about their lives as if the flames were just a routine inconvenience, was made in tandem with a video installation and premiered at an art space in Dublin. "Once you leave documentary and narrative, they don't really have any words for what's left, so they call it experimental," explains Reynolds, who isn't sure how he would label his own work.
The directors, who met at the School of Visual Arts in 1995, are Sundance veterans: their earlier collaborations "Drown" and "Seven Days 'Till Sunday" (both of which also take dramatic means of death and make them mundane) played Sundance in 2000 and 1999, respectively. Reynolds thinks the festival's imprimatur helped them get the grant from non-profit funding organization Creative Capital. But films like these are acquired by museums, if at all, and for very little money. Reynolds didn't come to Sundance to make deals. "I don't think I need to support myself off the thing I love," says Reynolds, who edits commercials and features to pay the rent.
"You don't even know that people are making films like this anymore," says Jeremy Podeswa. The Canadian director has had two features play at Sundance in the past and returns this year with "Touch," a short about the sadistic desires of an abused teenage boy. He's enjoying being at the festival without the pressure of making a big sale (the film already has Canadian and foreign TV distribution), and acknowledges that this may be because he's no longer struggling to establish himself (he just finished directing an episode of "Six Feet Under"). The film is a disturbing story, told entirely through voiceover. "It's a character I probably wouldn't have created for a feature film," Podeswa explains, "because the boy is too extreme." But it was important to the writer-director to find a space to tell a story without worrying about commercial prospects.
Thomas Allen Harris' "E Minh Cara/That's my Face," in the documentary program, is another labor of love -- an autobiographical doc about a quest for spiritual roots, shot on Super-8. Weaving old films of his grandfather's with recent footage, Harris tells the story of his childhood years in Tanzania, his family history in relation to Africa, and his quest later in life to find spiritual guidance. Harris started in traditional documentary (he was at WNET for six years) but felt constrained by the form, so he moved towards the art world (he was a fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program and has had work exhibited in galleries). This combination is evident in the film.
"I wanted to leave enough space so people can experience rather than just watch," Harris explains. The power of the film lies less in the content of the narration than in the visual stories it has to tell. Harris isn't coy about the commercial potential of having a film at Sundance, and he hopes that this film will open the door for a feature deal: he's currently working on "a Super 8 narrative sex comedy."
What these filmmakers share is a confidence in the intelligence of their audiences. Sherman Alexie, writer of 1998 Sundance selection "Smoke Signals," believes that the studios lack this quality, and therefore make it impossible for innovative and political work to be told. He describes "The Business of Fancydancing" as "a direct result of trying to make a movie within the studio system." The film isn't experimental in a strict sense: combining documentary-style footage, dream sequences, and more conventional narrative, the film defies generic categorization. Alexie is primarily a writer, not a visual artist, and this background informs his approach (eight poems are read aloud, in their entirety in the film). Alexie is confident that there's an audience for his film -- just not one that the studios know how to pursue. "If my movie doesn't piss off or alienate or bore more people than it pleases," he says, "than I don't think I've done my job."
Perhaps the best known of the artists turned filmmakers at the festival is Lynn Hershman Leeson. "Teknolust," which had it's world premiere on Monday at midnight, explores the comic and tragic potential of cloning and may be one of the strangest films in the festival. Starring Tilda Swinton in four roles, the film is made possible by video-compositing (a scene in which Swinton's three characters dance with each other is particularly impressive), and is filled with tiny metaphors and striking visual details. Leeson moved to film from video art to reach a wider audience -- "I like being heard, and it drives me crazy when I'm not."
Leeson's film ultimately remains an artist's vision, and like many of this year's more innovative features, this should be reason enough for it to find an audience.
[Liz Mermin is a documentary filmmaker and editor in New York.]