Sunday, January 30, 2000

Sundance gives filmmakers hope against hype

Festival tries to stay focused on the language, passion of movies

The Cincinnati Enuirer

        PARK CITY, Utah — Inevitably, commerce rules.

        Ads from Mercedes Benz, The Gap, Starbucks Coffee, Dewars Scotch and Piper Heidsieck Champagne crowd the landscape at the Sundance Film Festival. Show business trade publications feverishly report which films are “in play” among theatrical and TV distributors.

        Headlines cite sales prices of $1 million here, $3 million there, alongside essays fretting that the independent film movement has been co-opted, corrupted and overwhelmed by Hollywood money.

        In fact, for all the business chatter, the majority of films shown here never will be shown in theaters. Many will make no money at all. Yet despite the dollar-driven clamor, filmmakers can still find the moral support and artistic inspiration the festival intended to provide.

        “People that attend this festival (love) films,” said Deborah Hoffman, co-director of the documentary Long Night's Journey Into Day about post-apartheid South Africa.

        At a luncheon for filmmakers, Ms. Hoffman gestured at her tablemates, who were debating the ethics of capturing true stories on camera.

        “This, exactly what you are witnessing, is why you come here” she said. “For me, the best part is hanging out with other filmmakers and having this 10-day documentary intensive.”

        Ms. Hoffman's co-director, Frances Reid, said, “It's also the audiences here ... the level of the Q-and-A that happens after the film and the discussions that happen out in the hallway after they are thrown out of the theater. It's very intelligent and gratifying.”

        Among filmmakers, “there's very little small talk,” said Ms. Reid, because, “we know we have this thing in common; there's a common language and passion.”

        This year, as he does yearly, festival chief Robert Redford advised new filmmakers to wipe the words “hype” and “buzz” from their minds and to learn from one another. Many took the advice to heart.

        “All that hype, you've just got to go under the radar and ignore it,” said Yellow Springs filmmaker Steve Bognar, who is showing his short film Picture Day. His feature-length documentary Personal Belongings showed at Sundance a few years ago. “There are moments in the dark here where I feel I learn a ton about filmmaking by watching other films. My own sense of what's possible with movies expands.”

        “For anyone who's going to come here,” he said, “you have to totally forget the hype and the sales and acquisitions. ... It's all gossip. It's like high school, who's asking who to the prom.”

        Even the much-maligned commercial elements at the festival are helpful, said Elizabeth Barret, director of Stranger With A Camera, which was set for broadcast by the public TV series P.O.V. as the festival opened. She said she found the discussions of marketing and distribution enlightening.

        “It's a situation where you birthed this film and now it's beginning to go out in the world,” she said. “It's not that we are wrapping anything up here. It's just the opposite.”

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