Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Finishing Touches

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  There are films, there are festivals, there is exhaustion.

There are those who can watch five films in a day--I don't wonder at their honesty, or their stamina, but at their logistical prowess. Where there may be four choices on a busy weekend at a fourteen-plex, an event like Sundance has three or four choices running at once on seven or eight screens. How do these guys make it from one theater to another?

I caught one slow-burn, compelling documentary that was left out of the awards, but is supposedly scheduled for a PBS showing later this year: Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini's "Well-Founded Fear," a look at the American political asylum system. Allowed behind the scenes at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--the INS--Robertson and Camerini's film shows empathy for both sides of the equation. While it's easy to deify those seeking asylum and vilify the officers deciding their fate, "Well-Founded Fear" manages to take the perspective from both sides of the desk in these life and death situations in a careful, but restrained style not unlike Frederick Wiseman's. The awards ceremony on Saturday was introduced Sundance Institute Executive Director Ken Brecher, whose joke-writers allowed a few cracks to show through the idealistic notes, such as "This audience knows the truth: Independent filmmaking is about exploiting your family."

The first awards were screenplay nods given by Japan's NHK Broadcasting; the NHK representative spoke in Japanese about the dream-eating Baku monster of Japan and how hungry he was for all our dreams. Then director Guillermo Del Toro gave the awards, a larger, handsomer edition of Harry Knowles, in his fast, enthusiastic Spanish accent. Festival co-directors Geoffrey Gilmore and Nicole Guillemet followed, and Guillemet's thick, melodic French accent made the event seem even more cosmopolitan.

A large projection screen above the stage flashed the logos of event sponsors, and the memories of Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet" seem ever more like the truest truth--a world that is but a weave of product and brand identity. Groundswell favorite "Dark Days," while lacking a distribution deal, took three honors including the Audience Award for documentary film, and director Marc Singer also took a shared prize for best cinematography. Singer's five years of shooting the denizens of the tunnels beneath New York's Grand Central Station, living among them for several years, produced a hypnotic film, and the score by DJ Shadow doesn't hurt. Singer also ran to the stage a third time for the Freedom of Expression Award. ("Ah... pfwahhh... I'm so blown away," was all Singer could get out for a moment.) It's not a sentimental film, and on his first run up, Singer, to the thunderous sound of the crowd, thanked "Everyone who fed me, everyone who clothed me and everyone who loved me... and for everyone in the tunnel." It's not a cursory comment--the figures on screen also functioned as Singer's crew, and Singer admitted that he had to call his camera rental house to find out how to reload the camera at the start of the shoot.

Raymond DeFelitta's 1950s family coming-of-age tale, "Two Family House," took Audience award for features. DeFelitta had returned to New York, but one of his producers brought a cell phone to the stage for the distant director to listen. The other producer had his own thank you--"I want to thank those wonderful people at Lions Gate who bought my film so I can sleep again!"

Kevin Smith was on the Dramatic Competition jury, along with producer Lawrence Bender, writer Sandra Tsing Loh, actress Patricia Clarkson and former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin. Taking the stage to give the shared Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Smith contributed his trademark deadpan, award-show prank pulling. "We have to acknowledge someone so important to this year's festival, my wife, Jennifer." Smith cut into the laughter with, "I am so getting laid tonight." He then read an apocryphal note from Robert Redford, which ended with "P.S.--Fuck Slamdance."

It was a blast of fresh air after the earnestness of some of the prior goings-on. Smith then acknowledged his fondness for co-juror Maslin: "I don't know if any of you have thrown down with Maslin, but she can fight like a longshoreman. She can swear like one, too." Maslin's tight smile showed her to be a better sport than might be expected. Winner Karyn Kusama, who made the pungent "Girlfight," the story of a young woman changing her life through boxing, thanked a long list, ending with executive producer John Sayles, "a great teacher, mentor and friend." At a loss for words for a moment, she ended with, "So let's just live life while we can. Live a good life." Nothing to argue with there.

Documentary director Jon Else, giving another award, described Sundance as "a wonderful block party... a giant delicious block party." Of its focus on getting filmmakers to meets each other, he said, "This is our neighborhood." "Five Feet High and Rising," by Peter Sollett, a short I highlighted early, took the Jury Prizeoi. Going beyond the tie-happy selections of most of the jurors, the Shorts Jury (which included actress-activist-shorts director Sarah Polley) offered nine honorable mentions, including to Rolf Gibbs' "G" and the jaw-dropping "Titler," by Jonathan Bekemeier, which puts Hitler in a nicely tailored dress to perform a few a cappella selections against a backdrop of the ruins of World War II Germany.

The remainder of the awards were spread around to several films, and the party afterwards was just as mellow. Everyone happy. No one violent or feeling violated. Sunday afternoon, on the shuttle bus to the airport, the drone of silly voices took over again, with an attendee explaining--badly--the films he had seen to his seatmate. "That's the money shots," he said, all philosophical-like. "The ones that are most symbolic and beautiful. They're not even dream-like, it's a reality type thing."

The air was my reality-type thing in the bright Utah sunlight. Fingers of smoke from burning firewood lazed through the valleys, smelling like winter. And family. And home.

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