Sundance on the Edge; Experimental Surprises Bring A Dose of Art To The Festival
by Anthony Kaufman
Behind the glossy premieres, Salma Hayek sightings, and
oh-so-dramatic competition, there's a flipside to the Sundance Film
Festival. Call it art. Alongside the leggy supermodels and high-powered
publicists, image innovators will be stomping through the snow. They'll be a
small contingent ... bald heads, black clothes, odd gestures. They may not
be stirring up big sales or photo shoots, but they bring to Park City an
aesthetic and political power that will outlast most hangovers (or Indiewood
From art-world stars Matthew Barney and Shirin Neshat, to the
Bay Area cinema "paranaturalists" known as "silt," to a handful of
newcomers playing with form and fiction, Sundance 2003 includes a number of
surprises. And most surprised may be the filmmakers themselves. "I didn't
ever imagine myself at Sundance," says Travis Wilkerson, the director
of "An Injury to One," a lyrical, formalistic account of the 1917
lynching death of a union organizer in Butte, Montana. "I don't have
animosity towards the festival," he continues. "It just didn't seem like
they'd be interesting in what I was doing."
Wilkerson's film has already traveled the fest circuit from
CinemaTexas to Toronto, which may account for its slot in
Sundance's ambiguous Frontier section (a sort of catchall sidebar for daring
work) rather than the more high-profile Documentary Competition. But its
presence here, says Wilkerson, reflects his hope "that Sundance is what they
say it is: committed to making independent film in American better and an
acknowledgment that there is a whole range of stuff that is possible."
Mixing landscapes, text, and archival photos with the affecting tunes of
early union folk songs, "An Injury to One," named for the worker's movement
motto "an injury to one is an injury to all," is an intellectual elegy for
class struggle, environmental devastation, and the dangers of dissent
throughout American history. Influenced not by Hollywood mavericks or
Sundance hallmarks, Wilkerson's cinema is more associated with political
action; he cites the revolutionary work of Argentina's Fernando
Solanas and Cuba's Santiago Alvarez as inspirations, as well as
German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
"It's hard to imagine a more left-wing film getting into Sundance,"
Wilkerson half-jokes. "But I think that it has something to do with what
happens in situations where something bad happens, domestically and
internationally," he explains. "Those who are liberal move further left, so
there becomes a greater interest in more critical and oppositional
Indeed, Wilkerson is not alone. Similarly exposing the fragility of American
civil liberties, Chicago-based film and video artist Deborah Stratman's
"In Order Not to Be Here" uses police surveillance footage (and some of
her own) to depict a suburban nightscape imbued with paranoia and unease.
"This is a new genre of horror movie," she writes. With access to a Fox
News helicopter, Stratman even managed to stage her own infrared police
pursuit through the jungles of small-town U.S.A. in an eerie evocation of
Matt McCormick, best known for his tongue-in-cheek mock-doc "The
Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal," also utilizes night-vision blue
security video ... to shoot ships passing through the night in his latest,
"Going to the Ocean." Contrasted with found Kodachrome warm footage
of old-timey bathers, McCormick says the film is simply "about size,
texture, and motion."
Many of the stylistic breakthroughs at this year's festival would not have
been possible without digital technologies: for example, Wilkerson's
multi-layering of text and image, Stratman and McCormick's surveillance
footage, or Matthew Barney's three-hour blockbuster fantasy "Cremaster
3," the culmination of the New York artist's pentalogy and surely the
most spectacular, mystifying experience to be found in Park City.
"People have been waiting for a long time for digital to take flight," says
Joey Curtis, director of "Quattro Noza," one of the only
formally inventive films in this year's Dramatic Competition. "Maybe we can
add to that revolution." While last year's Sundance celebrated more
conventional DV-shot pictures, such as "Tadpole" and "Personal
Velocity," the format is ripe for expansion and experimentation ... what
Curtis calls his "sci-fi style" and "super-sonic-planetary" imagery. "It's
the ultimate digital," explains Curtis, a student of avant-garde luminary
Stan Brakhage, who used up to 14 cameras to shoot some sequences for
his street racing Romeo & Juliet fable. "There's electricity around us ...
Lucas called it 'The Force' ... and if you know how to use the camera, you
can catch that electricity," he says.
A few filmmakers are sticking to celluloid for their aesthetic revolution.
Argentine-born French provocateur Gaspar Noe ("Carne," "I Stand
Alone") returns to Sundance with his audacious insult
"Irreversible" (or, as some have nicknamed it, "Irresponsible"). With
its excruciatingly-long single-take anal rape scene and narrative that runs
in reverse, Noe's latest may rival Wilkerson's leftist politics with its
literal assault on the complacent, bourgeois viewer.
Then there's Baltimore-based Martha Colburn's animated punk-poem
"Skelehellavision," which combines pornography and skeletons to
create a demented, carnival-esque vision of sex and death. In an email to
indieWIRE, Colburn explains her process in a manner uniquely her own, "Its
aLL hand scratched, refilmmed through magnifying glasses taped to the lens
of my super 8mm," she writes. "i scratch with x acto knife tip, and
sometimes super impose film by taping tiny pieces onto it over and over. old
school shit, but i never went to school for film so i still work naive and
And isn't that how some of the best films are created?