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Inside the (Sundance) Jury Room with Joe Berlinger: Part One

Inside the (Sundance) Jury Room with Joe Berlinger: Part One

Inside the (Sundance) Jury Room with Joe Berlinger: Part One

At the Continental Airlines ticket counter of the Salt Lake City
Airport, on the final day of the 1997 Sundance Film Festival,
documentary competition juror Joe Berlinger, his wife and his daughter,
are preparing for the flight home. At the awards ceremony the previous
evening, dramatic and documentary winners were announced. Berlinger is
anxious to share with indieWIRE an insight into the jury process and a
few days later after a few preliminary phone calls and a fax, we chat.
The result is a unique perspective on the experience of serving as a
Sundance “judge,” as well as the inner-workings and dynamics of a festival’s

Comprised of five individuals who have had documentary films screen at
Sundance, the 1997 Documentary Competition Jury was: Jerret Engle
(“Something Within Me“), Deborah Hoffman (“Complaints Of A Dutiful
“), Michael Lumpkin (“The Celluloid Closet“), Lourdes Portillo (“The
Devil Never Sleeps
“), and Joe Berlinger. Two of Berlinger’s
documentaries, produced with his partner Bruce Sinofsky, have been
included in the Sundance competition, “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) and
Paradise Lost” (1996). At the last week’s ceremony, the jury proclaimed
Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio’s “Girls Like Us” the Grand Jury
Prize winner in the documentary competition. The group presented
filmmaker Arthur Dong (“Licensed To Kill“) with the DGA‘s Directing Award;
Renee Tajima-Pena’s “My America…Or Honk If You Love Buddha” was awarded the cinematography award for Christine Choy’s work; the Freedom of
Expression Award was split between Macky Alston’s “Family Name” and Laura
Angelica Simon’s “Fear And Learning At Hoover Elementary“, and a special
jury prize was presented to Kirby Dick’s “Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob
Flanagan, Supermasochist
“. Also, Monte Bramer’s “Paul Monette: The Brink Of Summer’s End” was presented with the festivals’ Audience Award and
Dong’s “Licensed To Kill” took the Filmmakers’ Trophy.

Berlinger is blunt about his reasons for wanting to participate in the
Sundance jury — his feeling is that previous documentary juries have
slighted his and Sinofsky’s films. He clarifies that he “wanted to be a
juror because I have not understood how we have done so well in the film
world, but we have struck out in the documentary world (the
International Documentary Association, Sundance Film Festival juries,
and The Oscars).” Berlinger explains that he “really wanted to have an
understanding our how the process works,” due to the fact that he was
“incredulous at the lack of recognition (his films have received) from
our peers.”

Beginning the discussion, an obvious first question for a Sundance juror
is what sort of influence Festival organizers have over the juries’
final decisions. Berlinger is frank, “Geoffrey (Sundance Institute
Programming Director Geoffrey Gilmore) made it a point to stay out.
Aside from obvious rules he stayed out of it, which I think is very
admirable.” The group embarked on screenings of competition
documentaries from day one. On day five, Wednesday, the group met for
two hours for an initial discussion. By then Berlinger had already seen
what, in his mind, was the festivals’ best documentary, Kirby Dick’s
“Sick”. It was also clear that, as Berlinger explains, “we seemed to have
some very different opinions.”

On day eight of the festival, Friday, the group met for eight hours in a
session that became a series of compromises leading to the announcement
of their decisions at Saturday night’s Awards’ ceremony. Berlinger
acknowledges that within the first half hour of discussion on Friday, it
was clear that there would be no consensus. At a point in the
discussion each juror revealed their top choice — five different films
were named. Confirming that the jury’s proceedings were, “pleasant, but
fractious,” he reveals that the group were “so un-unanimous, it was
pretty staggering.”

Read the conclusion of this report here.

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