Sunday, January 23, 2000

Sundance height of indie mania

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PARK CITY, Utah — At 8,000 feet above sea level, the Sundance Film Festival can be literally dizzying. Not so, presumably, for His Serene Excellency Dzongsar Jamyan Khyentse Rinpoche, the unlikeliest of the 20,000-odd visitors assembled in the Wasatch Mountains.

        Khyentse Norbu, as he is credited in the festival program, lives in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan where he is a high-ranking lama, revered as the reincarnation of a Buddhist holy man.

        Here at Sundance, he is simply one of 201 directors showing their wares to fellow filmmakers, deal-makers, buyers, promoters, journalists and even some film fans.

        Sundance is unparalleled as a symbol of the ever-mercurial state of the art of independent movies. The lama's presence here — even the existence of his film — vividly illustrates the grip of the independent film on the world's imagination. Even living saints want to direct.

        The Cup is the lama's first directing effort and one of the few films made in his home country. He was introduced to show business when he was engaged to act as spiritual adviser to director Bernardo Bertolucci during filming of Little Bhudda.

        His Sundance entry, part of the non-competitive World Cinema section, deals with efforts by young monastery students to follow the World Cup soccer championship; its cast is chiefly non-professional, including actual student monks.

        Such non-mainstream filmmaking is always a dominant theme at Sundance, as it is this year, along with a notable uptick in the number and prominence of films from female directors. Fifty-five of the 185 films (feature-length and shorts) on this year's schedule are directed by women.

        Though still far from half, that is an improvement that reflects more and better entries from women, festival organizers say, as much as a response to the drumbeat of criticism over the industry's failure to open up to women and minorities.

        Among other developments that have fueled the issue is the most recent employment report from the Directors Guild of America, released last month. It showed that female and ethnic minorities among its members actually worked less in 1998 than in 1997.

        Women accounted for 10.7 percent of working days in 1997; in 1998 that number fell to 10.2. Minority share of work days fell from 8.6 percent to 8.4 percent.

        Those numbers do not translate directly to independent film, because many low-budget filmmakers are not enrolled in the DGA. Still, the growing diversity of Sundance filmmakers — many of whom will go on to mainstream studio work — bodes well for the industry as a whole.

        Whatever they portend for gender equality, the films by woman at Sundance cannot be fit into neat categories. They are as different as Mary Harron's adaptation of the serial-killer story American Psycho and the poetry-inspired love story Compensation by former Antioch College professor Zainabu irene Davis, or New Zealander Christina Andreef's black comedy Soft Fruit and Long Night's Journey Into Day, the documentary by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman about the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

        Acceptance into Sundance is a coveted honor for the crowds of buoyant young people piling cans of film onto handcarts at the Salt Lake City airport on opening day. With hundreds of film industry professionals in the potential audience, virtually all of the filmmakers arrive hoping their movies will sell, or at least lead to more work.

        Among the obstacles they face is attracting attention. With receptions, parties and mini-concerts scheduled every day, some visitors barely find time to watch any movies.

        Among the highlights of this year's party scene is a bash to honor Punks, a gay-themed comedy directed by Patrik-Ian Polk from E2 Filmworks, a new independent-film arm of the growing entertainment conglomerate owed by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and his wife, producer Tracey Edmonds.

        Organizers of the What I Like About You party honoring director Jeff Stolhand had no qualms about touting their star attraction, Shawn Colvin.

        The most eagerly sought-after invitation wasn't even for a party; it was for the annual luncheon for a select group of filmmakers with Sundance guiding spirit Robert Redford.


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