Filmmakers go out on a limb to push their pix

VISIT SUNDANCE 2000
PARK CITY, Utah — The sidewalk battle between an understaffed Park City Police Dept. and maverick filmmakers determined to get noticed no matter what it takes is off to a flying start.

Last year, local merchants had to endure movie promoters plastering every square inch of vertical space with fliers. Apparently, this year was going to be different.

In a bit of updated frontier justice that indicates the municipality’s zero tolerance for spontaneous advertising, Slamdance filmmaker Farhad Yawari claimed he was stopped by Park City police and threatened with jail on Friday afternoon for passing out flyers to passersby for his movie “Dolphins.”

Free press

“People were coming up to us and asking us for fliers when the police came and grabbed me in front of my friends,” Yawari said, adding that the officer, Sgt. Sherman Farnsworth, immediately asked him for his passport and threatened to put him in jail. “My luck was that there were journalists around, and because of the press people, they let me go. That was my first day in Park City.”

The Iranian-born Yawari said he was let off with a warning that if it happened again, he’d have to pay a $2,000 fine. He wasn’t surprised the police wanted his passport — an otherwise unusual request, since Yawari seemed to pose no immediate threat to national security. “I don’t look like an American,” he suggested. “I look like a terrorist.”

That version is disputed as “completely made up” by Park City Municipal Corp. events coordinator Melissa Caffey, who said she tried to intercede before things got out of hand. First on the scene, she never heard Farnsworth ask for the filmmaker’s passport or threaten him with hard time, and calls the whole thing a shameless PR stunt she was trying peacefully to avert.

Arresting development

“He desperately wanted to be arrested,” Caffey said, explaining that she had asked Yawari several times not to block people on the sidewalk, and that he flagrantly kept it up when he spotted a crew from Salt Lake City paper the Deseret News. That’s when Farnsworth told him to cut it out or be fined.

“He said, ‘Take me to jail for my film’ and held out his hands for me to cuff him,” Caffey elaborated, saying the news crew was itching for them to do just that. “And afterwards, he even apologized to me for it, but said it was just too good a media opportunity.”

Slamdance executive director Peter Baxter, who received a visit from both Farnsworth and Caffey shortly after the incident, explained that he was told there’s a municipal ordinance banning any kind of commercial solicitation –right down to handing out a business card in the street.

“They were very nice, otherwise,” Baxter said, “but what this really means is that if you want to exchange business cards, you have to go inside a toilet or something to do it.” He added that even if a festgoer were to ask for promotional material unsolicited, that would be verboten, as well — an extreme interpretation of the law, insisted Caffey.

“The good thing that will come out of this,” Baxter concluded, “is that some people now will have to think of more creative ways to promote their films.” He added that he didn’t think the police had adequately posted what he understood to be a recently enacted city ordinance — one he is requesting be faxed to him by police.

Equal under the sun

Over at big brother Sundance Film Festival, press reps confirmed that it is indeed illegal to hand out any material, diminishing somewhat the suspicion among some Slamdance members that they have been unfairly targeted. Caffey added that although she couldn’t exactly quote from Municipal Ordinance 4-3-15, “it’s something that’s been around a long, long time.”

Even so, on Saturday morning Park City’s main street was crowded with movie reps handing out everything from luggage tags and scarves to bumper stickers, and even dressing up as gigantic foam-rubber bananas, most of them blissfully unaware that police may swoop down on them at any second.

“I survived the Shah and the Ayatollah,” concluded Yawari, whose family was purged in the early years of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution, and who managed to escape to Europe in 1984 at age 10. “And now I have to fight with the American police.”

A tired Caffey, who has already tussled with four filmmakers so far on the issue without this kind of drama, countered with one word: “Please.”

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