The Skinny on the 'Dance: Filmmakers and Pros Share Their Thoughts
by Mark Feinsod, Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz
Yesterday, the 1997 Sundance Film Festival announced the list of films
selected to play at this year’s shindig in the snow. Culled from a pool of
about 800 submissions (approx. 600 features, 200 docs, and a whopping 1300
shorts), the definitive independent film showcase narrowed that number down
to 127 total films (shorts excluded) with 34 of those (18 features and 16
documentaries) in competition. It would be impossible for a festival so
crucial to the worldwide independent film community not to have its playbill
closely scrutinized by filmmakers and professionals alike. indieWIRE spoke to
several of those, as well as festival programmer, John Cooper.
"This year I don’t know too many of the movies" said Morgan J. Freeman, whose
"Hurricane" won a slot in the dramatic competition. "It seems like the films
this year are coming in with distributors, and I’m kind of proud to carry on
the mystique of the films having never been seen. Its our time to introduce
the movie. We made the decision not to show the movie to distributors until
we got there." Freeman energetically flipped through the list of this year’s
Sundance films, and delightedly discovered that a classmate of his from New
York University, "Arresting Gena"’s director Hannah Weyer, was also a
competition entry. As for how it feels to have one’s film accepted into the
prestigious fest? "I’m kind of scared of the whole world of managers and reps
and agents. Who do you align yourself with?" But he hastens to add, "It feels
good. It all boils down to seeing this happen."
Jay Chandrasekhar, whose "Puddle Cruiser" will play in the American Spectrum, said "more than anything else I wanted desperately to be at Sundance," so it
was "more of a relief than a surprise. [Sundance] is a rite of passage in the
indie film world."
Good Machine Co-President Ted Hope, who’s company has three films– "Arresting Gena", "Love God" (Park City at Midnight section), and "Myth of Fingerprints (dramatic competition)– at Sundance, said of this year’s selections "the only trends I can see from looking at the list is that there are a lot of
documentaries and a lot of Australian films this year. There are also, I
think, three Parker Posey movies and three films with Brendan Sexton, Jr.,
[who appears in "Arresting Gena" and "Hurricane"] in them, so maybe those
constitute new genres all their own." Regarding criticism that movies at the
fest have strayed from by-the-seat-of-your-pants indie filmmaking, Hope
countered "Sundance consistently breaks new ground. There’s been a lot of
comment about more company-funded films, but, for example, [Neil LaBute’s] "In the Company of Men" is a no-budget writer/director piece."
The Independent Television Service will also be a major presence at Sundance,
as the organization has had six of its programs accepted into the Documentary
Competition– Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles’ "The Fight in the Fields:
Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle"; Jane C. Wagner and Tina
DiFeliciantonio’s "Girls Like Us"; Judith Helfand’s "A Healthy Baby Girl"; Su
Friedrich’s "Hide and Seek"; Renee Tajima-Pena’s "My America…Or Honk if you Love Buddah"; and Gina Reticker and Jerry Kupfer’s "New School Order".
"We are very pleased by our continued and large presence at the Sundance Film
Festival" said James Yee, ITVS’ Executive Director. "This year we feel
especially pleased to be the presenter and the major funding source– and in
many cases the only funding source– for more than 1/3 of the programs
featured in the Documentary Competition."
Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) Executive Director Ruby Lerner declared this year’s Sundance lineup a
"really, really exciting list." Singling out the Documentary Competition as
a significant group, she said, "I am actually very moved when I look at the
documentary list, to see that it has so many stalwarts," she explained, "As
always [the documentary section is] really exciting, it reads like a who’s
who of the independent field." She went on to express, "I hope that this
will be an inspiration to younger makers, here is a body of makers who have
found a way to stay in touch with their concerns in a time that has not been
particularly friendly to those concerns."
A number of 1997 doc directors have been jury members including: St. Clair
Bourne, Arthur Dong, and Renee Tajima. When questioned about the overall
lineup, indie guru John Pierson admitted to not being as up on the field this
year as in previous years, but was pleased to notice that there was only one
studio film (Steve James’ "Prefontaine", from Disney) in the festival this year. He
also noticed that about half of the 18 competition films had "some kind of
juice behind them", meaning a distributor, Good Machine-type production
company, or a "heavy hitter" producer, but then went on to say that was "not
terribly out of hand" as they were all first features. On the subject of the
docs, Pierson remarked that that "all documentaries tend to be better than
all features," but agreed with the theory that first documentaries tend not
to be as good as first features, and that filmmakers with the talent to be
really good documentarians tend to just get better.
Occasionally at Sundance, a trend emerges, such as gay-themed films (1993) or
African American films (1992), or films by young directors (1993, and on).
Programmer Cooper seems to think that "it happens organically" rather than by
design, and that "for an independent film to get made it usually takes about
two years…so that with the gay films it went back to the time that "Longtime Companion" was making its mark and a year and two years after that we got a
whole wave of gay films." When told that this year’s these buzz-word was sex,
however, Cooper wasn’t entirely buying it. "I don’t know if there is one
(theme) yet…there’s a lot this year that has been (adapted) from the
theater…and I think that is a direct relation of independent films becoming
hip in a way," and that when people look for stories that are more than
simply a genre piece, they’ve been looking to the stage. He went on to say
that the independent film community is looking for "less of the Quentin
Tarantino rip-off," and more films with the vision of the spoken-word.
When asked about why the dramatic competition films are all debut films but
the docs aren’t, Cooper mentioned that with Dramatic films, once a director
becomes more established in the indie community, like Tom DiCillo or Greg
Araki, they (Sundance) can choose to put their films in the Premieres
section, but docs still have to fight for a spot, so "if you start to water
them down….they don’t hold their own in the same way (as dramatic films)
you need to keep them together as this clump to get people to notice them."