At Sundance, it's the year of the documentary

Factual footage gaining ground at yearly film festival

Film

January 18, 2004|By Sean P. Means | Sean P. Means,Salt Lake Tribune

PARK CITY, Utah -- The playwright Tom Stoppard once wrote that when people asked about the deep existential themes in his play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, he felt "like a smuggler's dupe" standing before a customs officer: He had to admit those things were in there, but had no idea how they got there.

Something similar happens every year at the Sundance Film Festival. And this year's festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Saturday, is no different.

"The festival has, as usual, [created] a very diverse group of films," said Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's director. "That's something we continue to do without setting an agenda to do that. ... Some of the thematic issues, those are things you put together [in hindsight]."

If one major trend is emerging with Sundance 2004, it may be the number and variety of documentaries.

Of the 137 features on the Sundance slate, nearly a third are documentaries. And beyond the usual 16 in the Documentary Competition and the nine in the World Cinema Documentary program, now in its second year, there are documentaries in the American Spectrum, Native Forum and Park City at Midnight sidebars. And, for the first time, a documentary -- Stacy Peralta's surfing adventure Riding Giants -- opened the festival.

The boost may be reflective of the movie market in 2003, when several documentaries -- Spellbound, Winged Migration, To Be and to Have and last year's Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, Capturing the Friedmans -- did surprisingly well in theatrical release.

Realist aesthetics

Even in fictional films, the style of documentary filmmaking gets a workout. Gilmore cites an American Spectrum entry, September Tapes, a drama that mixes fiction with actual war footage from Afghanistan in its account of three Americans visiting Kabul to find the unreported truth about the war on terrorism.

"We've been talking about what September Tapes is like, and analyzing what the aesthetic issues are," Gilmore said. "I've been thinking about why a generation that's been growing up with more realist aesthetics on television more than anyone else ever has wouldn't start to think like that."

Or, Gilmore said, there's the Frontier film Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's blend of home-movie footage and fiction depicting his strained relationship with his schizophrenic mother. The line between reality and fiction is so blurred, Gilmore said, that "its new executive producer, Gus Van Sant, is talking about it to me as a documentary film when I'm talking about it to my staff as a fiction film."

The rise in documentaries has even affected Sundance's noisy neighbor, the Slamdance International Film Festival, which this year has split its competition jury into two -- one group for narrative films, the other for documentaries.

"It's a golden age of documentary filmmaking in the United States," said Peter Baxter, Slamdance's founding director.

Lower-cost filmmaking

"The capability of what new technology affords is lower-cost filmmaking," Baxter said. "With digital technology -- with the very simple fact of running a $6 tape through a camera, which lasts an hour -- you've got this tremendous advantage of building up, over a period of time, an amazing story. If you had to rely on film, and a set budget, you couldn't get the type of subject matter or storytelling you're putting into a documentary film these days."

Of course, Sundance's movies also boast the usual gaggle of movie stars: Kevin Bacon, Christian Bale, Matthew Broderick, Courteney Cox, Laura Dern, Matt Dillon, Jane Fonda, Ashton Kutcher, Julianne Moore, Mandy Moore, Gary Oldman, Peter O'Toole, Mary-Louise Parker, Natalie Portman, Ray Romano, Isabella Rossellini, Mark Ruffalo, Hilary Swank, Billy Bob Thornton and Naomi Watts will be seen on screen -- and many will be here in person.

Oh, and there's this Robert Redford guy, who hangs around the festival most years in his role as founder of the Sundance Institute. This year, though, the champion of independent film will be seen at Sundance doing something new for him: acting in an independent movie. The Clearing, a kidnapping thriller starring Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe, will play in the Premieres section.

Lest one think Redford pulled rank to get The Clearing into the festival, Gilmore said the opposite is true.

"I had to make very strongly an argument that this was the right thing to do for the film," Gilmore said. "Redford is anything but someone who wants to be even perceived as taking advantage of [the festival]. ... When it gets down to it, if people don't like something, they can blame me."

Sundance on TV and online

Each day this week, through Saturday, TV's Sundance Channel will offer Sundance Film Festival programming.

Highlights include a nightly double bill: At 8:30 p.m., an episode of Anatomy of a Scene, a program that focuses on a film that premiered at the festival; and at 9 p.m., a full showing of a noteworthy film that made its debut at a past festival. Some of the films include Trembling Before G-d, Ulee's Gold and El Mariachi. On Saturday, the Sundance Channel will air the closing night awards ceremony live beginning at 9 p.m.

The Sundance Channel appears on various digital cable systems in the Baltimore region. Check with your cable operator for more information. More information about the Sundance Channel is available online at www.sundance channel.com.

You can also find continuing coverage of the events and celebrities at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival online at The Sun's Web site, at www.SunSpot.net / Sundance Fest.

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