Friday, February 01, 2008

Park City Dispatch 8––On GreenCine Daily

Docs Rock at Sundance

As in recent years, the documentaries once again stole the show at Sundance 08. Among the 41 films I crammed into nine days, 23 were nonfiction titles.

Topics included: social activism, environmentalism, economic concerns, anti-war issues, the corrosion of democracy, world politics, displacement, gender identity, inspiring senior citizens, and entertaining biographies of Roman Polanski, Hunter S Thompson and Patti Smith.

One festival highlight was certainly the premiere of U2 3D, a genuine concert experience utilizing the technology of 3-D and surround-sound. Leave it to Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry (all in attendance at the screening, along with Al Gore) to merge rock-and-roll with social activism. After the screening, Bono's response to an audience question about whether the band might consider doing a "deeper" show, inadvertently spoke to the festival's raison d'etre: "Underneath there is a narrative running: social activism, human rights, non-violence. Taking human rights on the road is not a flippant thing to do," he reasoned. "I think you might know that in this country."

I marveled at many of the documentaries' timeliness and the prescience of the filmmakers, many of whom spent upwards of three, four, and five years in production. For example, I.O.U.S.A., Fields of Fuel, Secrecy, Flow: For Love of Water, Dinner with the President, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, Slingshot Hip Hop and Bigger, Stronger, Faster each address topics of immediate national and international concern.

Continue reading at:
Originally published on GreenCine Daily, 1/31/08.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sundance 2008: Day 7, Weds., 1/23/08

Parties and Panels

Something I haven’t yet mentioned, the parties I’ve attended as well as the informative and worthwhile film panels.

Sundance parties are particularly legendary, even infamous. I’d heard many stories and before this year, felt a little left out. But press credentials go a long way –– and journalists are invited to a number of parties.

Earlier in the week, while working in the pressroom, I started a conversation with a guy who, it turns out, attended Stanford years ago and his daughter is currently a student there. I thought he was another film journalist, but he turned out to be the president and CEO of Sundance Channels. You never know whom you’re going to meet here (witness Bono’s and my intersection last Saturday night). Larry invited me to the Sundance Channel Party downtown on Main Street and I was thrilled. I’d already RSVP’d to the IDA (Independent Documentary Association) invitation to their Heineken sushi party, held right after SC’s.

Because I was coming from interviews with two directors, I arrived late at the Sundance Channel party, but it was still in full swing. I made my way through the throngs looking for anyone I might know or recognize. Alas, no one. After 15 minutes I headed up to Park St. to The Lift (literally a ski lift in the middle of town) for the IDA party. The editor of “Documentary” Magazine (in which I am proudly listed as a Contributing Editor in the masthead) greeted me. Yay, I know someone. Then I saw A.J. Schnack, a documentary filmmaker (“Kurt Cobain: About a Son”) I met and interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival two years ago. Naturally, by the time I arrived, all the sushi was eaten. But, given today’s NYT headline –– “High Mercury Levels Are Found in Tuna Sushi” –– maybe that wasn’t so bad. Oh, well, I've never been much of a party person and feel much more comfortable one-on-one. So, after 20 minutes, I split from The Lift and headed back to my favorite haunt: a movie theatre.

Tomorrow: Sundance Panels

Cross posted on "The Santa Cruz Sentinel"

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Sundance: Day 6, Tuesday, 1/22/08

Sundance: Day 6, Tuesday, 1/22/08

Yesterday I happened to be working in the Festival pressroom when the news of Heath Ledger's death broke. Industry insiders felt shock and deep sadness at the loss of this talented and much-too-young-to-die 28-year-old. A tragic waste of life.

Yesterday I interviewed two doc directors: Irena Salina, “Flow: For Love of Water,” and Stephen Walker, “Young @ Heart.”

The most compelling and politically/socially/environmentally important documentaries I've seen thus far include the following:

(For fuller descriptions of the first 5 titles, see earlier post: “Sundance: Opening Day, Thursday, 1/17/08):

“Flow: For Love of Water” (U.S.), director, Irena Salina.

“Fields of Fuel” (U.S.), director, Josh Tickell.

“I.O.U.S.A.” (U.S.), director, Patrick Creadon.

“The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” (U.S.), director Lisa F. Jackson.

“An American Soldier” (U.S.), directed and written by Edet Belzberg.

“Secrecy” (U.S.), co-directors, Peter Galison and Robb Moss. Looks at the staggering production of government classified secret documents that involves millions of people and billions of dollars.

“Up The Yangtze” (Canada), director Yung Chang. In this riveting and gorgeous doc, Chang spent 5 years chronicling the life transitions of families who live near the Three Gorges Dam and must find a way to adjust to the rising waters in a dramatically changing China.

“Singshot Hip Hop” (U.S.), director, Jackie Reem Salloum. Palestinian rappers present alternative voices of resistance within the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Very hot.

“Trouble the Water” (U.S.), co-directors, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. Lessin, an aspiring rap artist, and her streetwise husband who, filmed their experience of being trapped in New Orleans by deadly floodwaters, and seize their chance for a new beginning.

“The Women Of Brukman” (Les Femmes De La Brukman) (Canada), co-directors Isaac Isitan and Carole Poliquin. After the Argentinean economic meltdown between 2001 and 2003, with 60 percent of the population living in poverty and unemployment, after factory owners walked away from their businesses, workers took over a Buenos Aires men's clothing factory and managed to keep it in operation, providing employment.

“Alone In Four Walls” (“Allein In Vier Wanden”) (Germany),
director, Alexandra Westmeier. A heartbreaking account of teenage boys struggling to grow up in a home for delinquents in rural Russia where their home lives present even greater hardships.

“Be Like Others” (Canada, UK, USA, Iran), director, Tanaz Eshaghian. Forget what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at Columbia last year. This doc explores the unexpected subculture of young Iranian men who choose to undergo sex change surgery.

“Dinner With The President” (Pakistan), co-directors, Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan. Examines the current cultural climate in Pakistan by interviewing people-on-the-street, religious leaders

“In Prison My Whole Life” (UK), director, Marc Evans. Interviews with Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Mos Def, Angela Davis, Snoop Dogg and others uncover the story behind award-winning journalist Mumia Abu Jamal’s death row sentence, and comes to startling realizations about American history and America's justice system.

“Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma” (Canada), director Patrick Reed. James Orbinski, former head of Doctors Without Borders, returns to Africa where he is forced to examine the meaning of humanitarianism.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Sundance –– Day 4, 1/20/08

Meeting Bono

“U2 3D”: the event of Sundance ’08. Swaggering up the roundabout in front of the Eccles Performing Arts Theatre at Park City’s high school at 9 P.M.–– beefed-up bodyguard his shadow –– Bono, sporting Hunter S. Thompson transparent orange-tinted wraparounds, shook 20 hands, one of them mine. It was a “Beautiful Day,” a memorable moment.

When he reached a baby in a pram, Bono squatted down, looked him or her in the eye: “Thanks for coming! Are you cold,” he said, acknowledging the 10-degree chill.

Ah, just the opening the mother had waited for, “We don’t have tickets and we really want to see the movie!”

“How many in your party?”


“We can get you in. He’ll take care of it,” he assured the woman and pointed to an official-looking fellow.

As I turned around and headed into the theatre, Al Gore walked by me. Yes, the should-have-been president. No security, no Tipper, just another man beside him.

Inside, the theatre went crazy when U2 walked in. Gore was already posing for photos. The concert was scheduled for 9:45. As 10 o’clock came and went, I wondered when the film would commence and to that end, why they didn’t simply ask people to sit down. Then, surrounded by his entourage, Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford, strolled in and the audience went wild. Naturally, we couldn’t begin without our host.

Geoffrey Gilmore, the Festival Director took to the stage and invited the filmmakers (Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington), as well as the band, up to say a few words and introduce U2 in 3D. Bono said, “There’s something fitting about being here in a high school; we are a high school band, after all,” he laughed.

Finally, the house lights dimmed and we donned our 3D glasses as “U2 3D”’s opening credits rolled. The film comprises seven 2006 Latin American Vertigo concerts shot on location in São Paulo, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires, among other cities (70,000 people each). Bono called it “a love song to Latin America.” The light show and staging are first class with a red and black color scheme and an audience-embracing horseshoe-shaped platform on which Bono, Edge, and Larry pranced, played guitar, and for one song, beat a standing drum like a Taiko drummer.

The band performs 14 songs, including “Pride (In the Name of Love,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “All Because of You,” “Vertigo,” and “Yahweh.” During “City of Blinding Lights,” in solidarity with the concert audiences, many among the audience of 1200 illumined our cell phones.

The 3D effects were, in the original sense of the word, awesome. At times I reached out and “touched” band and audience members. And occasionally it felt as if I needed to duck to avoid the neck of Larry’s bass guitar. The cinematic experience of U2 is obviously different from a “live” performance. But Saturday’s event proved the best of both worlds: an unprecedented virtual nearness to the rocking Irish troubadours on stage thanks to 3D technology and the actual proximity to them two rows in front of me. I watched them watch themselves.

During the Q&A after the film, an audience member asked if the band might consider “doing a “deeper” show, like the Beatles in “Yellow Submarine.” Bono seemed a bit put off at first, but he responded with what seemed obvious to most of us: “Underneath there is a narrative running: social activism, human rights, non-violence. Taking human rights on the road is not a flippant thing to do,” he reasoned. “I think you might know that in this country.”

Isn’t it about time the Swedish Academy awarded Bono the Nobel Peace Prize?

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Sundance '08 -- Day 2, Fri., 1/18/08

Con't. DOCS:

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” (U.S.), director, Christopher Bell; co-written with Alexander Buono and Tamsin Rawady. With Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, and Roger Clemens in the news and, worse, Chris Benoit’s “’roid rage” slaying of his wife and 7-year-old son, and subsequent self-hanging last year, Bell examines America’s win-at-all-cost malady by exposing his two brothers' membership in the steroid subculture. The film opens with images of 1980s super-heroes: Rambo, Conan, and Hulk Hogan, but then analyzes the extent of (even rappers and R & B stars admit to using steroids and human-growth-hormones) and deeper issues surrounding these drugs: ethics in sports and the ramifications on both psychological and physical health.

“The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” (U.S.), director Lisa F. Jackson sees Congolese women’s bodies as a wartime battleground; in fact, rape is a key destabilizing method in a corrupt cycle. Jackson interviewed women who survived rape in war-ravaged remote villages of the Congo, thereby, giving us an intimate glimpse into the atrocities that dominate their lives.

“An American Soldier” (U.S.), directed and written by Edet Belzberg. Five years into the war in Iraq, with no mandatory draft to fill its depleting ranks, the U.S. Army is more dependent than ever on persuasive recruiters to lure young would-be soldiers to the front lines. Enter Sergeant First Class Clay Usie, from Louisiana, one of the most successful recruiters in America today. In vérité-style, Belzberg chronicles Usie’s activities during a nine-month period. To high school youths facing a future of unemployment, or low-paying jobs, Usie appears to offer a reasonable alternative –– until their deployment to Iraq.

Three exciting American-produced bio-docs premier this year:

“Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” (U.S.), director, Alex Gibney. Following on the heels of Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s oral history of Thompson, Gibney (director of the award-winning “Taxi to the Darkside” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) creates an intimate and revealing portrait of writer Hunter S. Thompson. Focusing on the decade from 1965 to 1975 and using never-before-seen clips of Thompson's home movies, newly discovered audiotapes and passages from unpublished manuscripts, Gibney creates a three-dimensional portrait of a true American icon.

“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (U.S.), director, Marina Zenovich. In this exploration of the infamous ’70s case, in which acclaimed director Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown,” “The Pianist”) allegedly had sexual intercourse with a minor, Zenovich uncovers a very different story than that of which the legal system –– fired by the media –– convinced the public. Rather than face certain jail time, Polanski fled to Europe, where he remains to this day. Will this documentary resolve the myth and mystery that have haunted this professionally respected, personally reviled, controversial character?

“Patti Smith: Dream of Life” (U.S.), director, Steven Sebring. Legendary musician/poet/painter/activist and sometime lover of Sam Shepard, Smith once wrote: “Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line. You have your own internal world, and it’s not neat.” Amen to that. Sebring tracked this punk pioneer and spiritual child of Rimbaud, Blake, and Burroughs for 11 years through intimate personal revelations at her home to mesmerizing public performances.

TBC . . .

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sundance '08 -- Opening Day, Thurs., 1/17/08

Greetings from Sundance 'o8 in 20-degree Park City, Utah, where the first of 10 days of enticing, thought-provoking, exhilarating, sobering, revelatory, and epiphanic domestic and world narrative, documentary, experimental, and short films begins today.

During the two-hour direct flight this morning, I devoured the catalogue descriptions of the 207 films screening in a variety of Festival venues from the fine old Egyptian Theatre on Main Street that seats 266, to the 1270-seat Eccles Theatre two miles away. Films begin at 8 A.M. each morning, and the die-hard could find herself slouching toward her condo the next morning at 2 A.M., with just a few hours of sleep before repeating her mad immersion in cinema for nine consecutive days.

This year’s Festival theme is PLACE, as in, film takes place –– psychologically and physically. Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Institute, puts it this way: “[Film] begins in the way that an individual filmmaker imagines an idea within a certain space, be it home or a city or a rural landscape. So you begin with an interior place and move to the exterior. The interior and exterior blend into the stories and onto the screen, where they become the experience of the viewer and create a new life altogether: a new space.”

Within that new space or consciousness, we as viewers may discover something new, or even recognize something about ourselves, “some truth,” as Redford observes, “a place [we’ve] never been before.”

The following are a few of the documentary “places” (in terms of political and social consciousness) I found potentially the most captivating, motivating, and perhaps even transformative:

“Fields of Fuel” (U.S.), director, Josh Tickell. With the price of oil at $100 a barrel, Tickell uncovers a desperately needed alternative for a decentralized, sustainable energy infrastructure, like a new Brooklyn biodiesel plant serving three states, a miraculous Arizona algae-based fuel farm, and the Swedish public voting to be petroleum free by 2020. Tickell’s passionate film tracks the rising domination of the petrochemical industry in the second half of the 20th century and, concurrently, summons citizens’ action.

“Flow: For Love of Water” (U.S.), director, Irena Salina. While, contrary to conventional belief, we can live without oil, water remains our most crucial resource (remember Frank Herbert’s “Dune”?). Given the goal of privatization by billion-dollar water companies, impoverished nations could be headed for extinction. But people around the world are fighting back (the Cochabamba protests of 2000, also know as “The Cochabamba Water Wars,” were a series of triumphant protests that took place in Bolivia’s third largest city because of the privatization of the municipal water supply threatened by the World Bank). Salina interviews African plumbers who secretly reconnect shantytown water pipes to ensure a community’s survival; a California scientist who exposes toxic public water supplies; and a “water guru” who promotes community-based initiatives to provide water throughout India.

“I.O.U.S.A.” (U.S.), director, Patrick Creadon. In spite of (or because of?) Bush and Bernanke’s (and Schwartzenegger’s) persistent and unsustainable tax cuts, the U.S. economy is on the brink of a meltdown. The over-burdened social-security system, the ever-expanding industrial-military-complex, and growing debts to foreign interests foreshadow a future of national economic (not to mention) spiritual bankruptcy. But Creadon, moving beyond partisan entanglements, suggests sound solutions for a future fiscally sound nation.

TBC . . .

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