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Why the Slamdance Film Festival Remains Vital After 21 Years

Why the Slamdance Film Festival Remains Vital After 21 Years

During the first year of the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, co-founder Peter Baxter recalled, he was approached by a police officer “Son, your days are numbered here,” he said.

The cop was way off. With its headquarters nestled just a few blocks upslope from Sundance’s epicenter on Park City’s Main Street, the festival that was once considered Sundance’s rebellious but inconsequential younger sibling has grown into an institution in its own right. Having completed its 21st year this past weekend and still true to the idealism of the founding mantra, “by filmmakers, for filmmakers,” Slamdance has carved out a low-key but vital space for emerging voices with limited budgets. 

In an attempt to level the playing field for the immeasurable crop of still-unknown filmmakers, the festival remains steadfast in maintaining its blind submission policy. No slot is filled by a film that’s been actively scouted in advance, and — this will come as music to filmmakers’ ears — every film submitted is screened at least twice before the program is locked.

READ MORE: Slamdance 2015 Winners Announced

Of course, the system isn’t perfect, and the annual showcase can be hit or miss. “Democracy is messy,” Baxter said, “and we’re not saying that the films that we’re showing are the best of everything that’s been submitted. We know there are some excellent films — as good as the ones we’re showing. But it just so happens that the program worked out this way [on any given] year.”

That said, Slamdance is propelled by the promise of discovery — the feeling that the next great talent is pacing the headquarters’ halls, complimentary bagel in hand.

The shorts program is always a good place to look for emerging talent and there were many gems amidst the selection this year. Jamie Sisely’s “Stay Awake,” which won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Short, centers on two brothers in small town Virginia struggling to care for their mentally disturbed mother. With naturalistic performances from all three lead actors, the film communicates a complexity of emotions that extend far beyond the film’s short running time and inserts a great deal of humor without ever undercutting the severity of the characters’ moral dilemma.

In a completely different vein, Kareem Tabsch’s “Dolphin Lover” recounts the story of Malcom Brenner, a Floridian zoophile who, as the title suggests, had a romantic and sexual relationship with a dolphin named Dolly. While this sounds like a facetious chapter straight out of Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask,” Brenner’s story is all too real. Receiving the Jury Honorable Mention for Best Documentary Short, the film hinges on an alarmingly forthcoming interview with its central subject (the man, not the dolphin). Full of important life lessons like the distinction between zoophilia and bestiality, what’s most striking about “Dolphin Lover” is the way it manages to navigate the story’s bizarre emotional twists and turns while keeping a straight face and remaining free from moral judgment.

Comeback stories arose as a prevalent (if accidental) theme within the doc section this year. Taking home the Jury Award for Documentary Feature was Ben Patterson’s “Sweet Micky for President,” which follows former Fugees member Pras Michel as he returns to his Haitian roots to spearhead the presidential campaign of Michel Martelly — the country’s most controversial musician better known as “Sweet Micky.”

Condensing the country’s turbulent history into a whirlwind of archival footage, beginning with the Haitian revolution and taking us all the way up to the earthquake that decimated the country in 2010, Patterson perfectly sets the stage for Martelly’s grand entrance onto the political scene. Though he has to distance himself from his raunchy stage presence, Pras uses Martelly’s famously politicized lyrics as the impetus behind a disorganized circus of a campaign, pegging the former singer as the voice of the Haitian people — past, present, and future. 

Patterson may paint Martelly’s underdog story through Pras’ rose-tinted and frequently politically ill-informed glasses, but he also demonstrates a keen ability to extract the drama out of whatever situation is unfolding in front of him and package it into compelling — and highly marketable — narrative. (The rivalry that resurfaces when former band mate Wyclef Jean decides to drop into the running gets the same amount of screen time as the corrupt rigging of the national election, for example). Viewers will find themselves rooting for Martelly’s victory even if it’s not necessarily in the country’s best interest.
Honorable Mention in the same category went to Jeremy Royce’s “20 Years of Madness,” another comeback doc about the creators of Detroit-based public access program “30 Minutes of Madness.” The show, which featured the experimental-cum-slapstick antics of high school misfits with dreams of MTV futures, managed to achieve cult status among Gen-Xers. “They were doing Tom Green shit before Tom Green existed,” one doting fan recalls. 

But local popularity never did snowball into national fame. By the time Royce drops in on the former cast and crew, he finds nearly all of the once-hopeful youths profoundly struggling in their adult lives. In its best sequence, which strings together a series of video portraits that the show’s creator, Jerry White Jr., shot each year on his birthday, the film achieves an affecting Boyhood-esque sense of temporal melancholy.

“This is me at 23. This is me at 24…” he says to no one in particular. The cumulative effect is staggering, and at every age White seems deeply lost. It’s not until he reaches 37 (and looks about 30 pounds lighter) that he’s settled on a direction. Having just graduated from USC’s film school, White is headed back to Michigan to reunite the old gang and recreate the show.

The film’s scrappy collection of old video footage and talking heads is in keeping with the original program’s DIY aesthetic, and although it ends on a hopeful note, “20 Years of Madness” is a rather mournful meditation on the importance of claiming a sense of purpose.

While the narrative section saw its fair share of genre pictures this year, “Asco,” the visually striking debut from Brazilian filmmaker Ale Paschoalini, is worth singling out precisely because it eludes genre specification. The film is a nearly-wordless and highly visceral post-mortem of a relationship, and while this may sound like a tired subject, Paschoalini’s approach is entirely fresh (and refreshingly un-American.) Beautifully shot in high-contrast black and white, the film’s combination of surrealism and lyrical poetics is something like what might happen if Fellini directed Terrence Nance’s “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.”

Like Nance’s film, the action of “Asco” is set up by a question: “How do you feel?” First posed to our unnamed protagonist (Guto Nogueira) by the lover that’s just rejected him (Sol Faganello), the query sends him quickly reeling into a whirlwind of emotions expressed through (sometimes floridly mimed) actions and scenarios. We watch him pound the ground in despair, spy and stalk out of jealousy, and plot to kidnap (and perhaps kill) in anger. There are many isolated pleasures to be found in the film’s semi-episodic structure: an encounter with a faceless man in a bar, a hypnotic dance solo to the sound of a forlorn banjo, and a particularly wonderful moment in which our hero collects a bounty of human hair from a barber shop floor and glues it onto his beloved’s car, transforming it into a mechanized wooly mammoth. With extreme close ups, jarring camera angles, and an affectively rendered soundscape, “Asco” has the kind of artistry that warrants a continuous loop, but thankfully lacks the pretension to demand a museum space.

In the minority at Slamdance as a foreign film, “Asco” points to an important gap the festival is striving to close, an issue the founders have been aware of since the beginning. “One of the challenges was, as four white guys, how could we sustain and encourage diversity?” Baxter said.

The answer? To continue to invite back more filmmakers as programmers. “There’s no quota,” he added, “but we all know independent cinema should be more diverse.” Recently striking a distribution partnership with Hulu, Slamdance is making strides towards expansion, diversification, and sustainability by providing a platform for more films all year round.

“We believe these films can find commercial audiences,” Baxter said, “and we want to be directly involved in that so we continue to support our filmmakers outside of the festival.” Far from fulfilling the prophesy of that militant Park City policeman, Slamdance may soon extend beyond its days in Park City to land in living rooms around the country.

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