Sundance shines a light on international docs

From January 16 to 26, Park City, U.S., swelled with throngs of movie fans in town for the annual Sundance Film Festival.
February 1, 2003

From January 16 to 26, Park City, U.S., swelled with throngs of movie fans in town for the annual Sundance Film Festival. There was no shortage of high-wattage Hollywood stars for them to ogle – Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck and J.Lo, to name a few – but the real attraction for this crowd was the films. And, in pleasant contrast to America’s mainstream cinema scene, docs seemed to be as eagerly anticipated as their fiction counterparts.

Theaters were full for screenings of such disparate non-fiction features as San Francisco, U.S.-based director Jonathan Karsh’s My Flesh and Blood, the story of a remarkable woman (Susan Tom) who adopts and cares for 11 disabled kids, and Dane Jesper Jargil’s The Purified, about the four original devotees of the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement. Both films received a warm response from their audiences, as did New Scenes from America – a lovely short by another Denmark-based doc-maker, Jorgen Leth – which preceded The Purified.

Karsh later picked up two documentary prizes, the directing and audience awards. Among the other doc winners were: Andrew Jarecki, who scored the grand jury prize for Capturing the Friedmans; Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn and Peter Gilbert, who won the cinematography award for Stevie; and Judith Katz, Madeleine Gavin and Gary Sunshine, who took home the freedom of expression award for What I Want My Words to Do to You. (Only U.S. film- makers could enter their films in competition.)

The introduction this year of international factual fare was the brainchild of Diane Weyermann, director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program. In addition to the Danish films mentioned above, the impressive lineup in the World Cinema Documentary section included Bus 174, a doc about a Saõ Paolo bus-hijacking, made by Brazilian doc-makers Jose Padilha and Marcos Prado, and Balseros, about Cuban ‘rafters’ who fled their homeland for the U.S., by Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech of Spain.

Weyermann proved her willingness to go out on a limb for a good film with the last-minute selection of Ford Transit, by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. The doc tells the story of a Palestinian taxi driver who creatively bypasses roadblocks and barriers on his daily excursions between east Jerusalem and Ramallah. Although Ford Transit came to Weyermann’s attention after the program schedule had been set – and printed – she made sure it was added to the slate, albeit in an 8:30 A.M. time slot. According to Ford Transit distributor Philippa Kowarsky (of Israel-based Cinephil), the exposure was beneficial. While no European or North American broadcast commitments had been confirmed at press time, she indicated that the signs were promising.

Bus 174‘s Padilha and Prado didn’t need to worry about cutting tv deals at Sundance; they walked through the door with commitments from U.S. pay channel HBO, U.K. pubcaster BBC and European channel ARTE. The Brazilian filmmakers were more interested in finding a theatrical distributor (each broadcaster licensed the film for two years but agreed to leave a window for cinematic release). They said they were aiming for Sony Pictures Classics or Miramax, though nothing has yet been confirmed.

Another new element at Sundance was the expansion of the House of Docs into a venue welcoming of all filmmakers. Rebranded House of Docs/Filmmaker Lodge, the space was still largely occupied by factual types, at least early in the festival’s run. At the opening cocktail, Sundance founder Robert Redford (‘Bob’ to just about everyone in Park City) said he believes both fiction and non-fiction filmmakers could benefit from greater intermingling. He also reiterated his commitment to push docs forward.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.