Building a foundation for docs

Sundance first major fest to allow electronic projection

Not content to rest on its laurels as the premier U.S. showcase for documentary films, Sundance is creating new ways to give greater visibility to the nonfiction form. As part of an ambitious three-year plan, Sundance opens the House of Docs this weekend.

Located in Park City’s Lower Main Street Plaza, the venue gives documentarians an informal gathering place to meet and greet, and will act as the site of a series of panels and discussions. From Jan. 21-25, free conferences will cover the spectrum of documentary issues from storytelling to marketing.

The quality of the company is not insignificant. In 1999 alone, half of the films on Oscar’s short list for doc contenders screened at Sundance.

“(The House of Docs) will give filmmakers the chance to meet with creative people, who can guide and give advice and share their vision” says Nicole Guillemet, the Institute’s vice-president and festival co-director.

“I like the idea of a place where filmmakers can run into each other,” adds Deborah Hoffmann, co-director with Frances Reid of “Long Night’s Journey Into Day,” which has been entered in the doc competition.

One of Guillemet’s goals for the House of Docs is to create more media awareness of the documentary form, which makes sense since most filmmakers like Hoffmann decry that “documentaries have gotten the stepchild treatment” from the press.

Guillemet also wants to find ways to overcome the stigma of docs as medicine, or something that is “good for you.”

Adds fest co-director Geoff Gilmore: “It’s extremely hard for indie films in the marketplace. Docs have added burden of the ‘D word’ and are not generally thought of by audiences as an evening of fascinating film,” says festival co-director Geoff Gilmore.”

Recognizing the added cost of post-production for the notoriously cash-strapped indie documaker, Sundance will be the first major festival to allow filmmakers to screen their films via electronic projection. Daniel McCabe’s and Paul Stekler’s epic portrait, “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” and Anne Makepeace’s “Coming to Light: the Edward S. Curtis Project & the North American Indians ” are two of the 10 docs that will be projected via e-cinema.

“People who make documentary films, spend a whole lot of time and money to make a film that usually screens once somewhere if they’re lucky,” explains Randy Barbato, director of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” “Sundance changes that landscape.”

Acknowledging Sundance’s importance for his film’s theatrical and commercial prospects, Barbato and co-producer and co-director Fenton Bailey will be bringing the film’s narrator, RuPaul, and subject Tammy Faye Baker to the fest for an Ice Cream Social, giving away MAC cosmetics in the process. Other doc filmmakers are set to join the promotional caravan.

Legendary folk musician Ramblin’ Jack Elliott will perform live in support of his daughter Aiyana Elliott’s bio-pic “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.” Brazilian photographer Marcos Prado’s photos will be exhibited at The Flat Rabbett art gallery on Main Street as a tie-in to Nigel Noble’s feature doc “Os Carvoeiros” (“The Charcoal People.”) The parents of Amy Biehl, whose murder in South Africa was one of the cases investigated by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will attend screenings of Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid’s “Long Night’s Journey Into Day,” which examines postapartheid justice.

Indie P.R. vet Jeremy Walker notes that it is not impossible for nonfiction films to achieve theatrical success, albeit on a much smaller scale. “People are drawn to reality, their potential is much greater than what people think,” says Walker.

Fine Line Feature prexy Mark Ordesky believes that music-themed docs have the best chance in exhibition. The New York-based indie is distributing “The Filth and the Fury,” Julian Temple’s revised account of the Sex Pistols rise and fall which will premiere at Sundance. A soundtrack CD is in the works. “The documentaries at Sundance get better every year and they have been great already,” says Ordesky.

While many doc filmmakers appreciate the exposure Park City affords, some harbor a political agenda that goes beyond the fest. “We’re headed for the destruction of the planet,” says Oscar-winner Nigel Noble, whose “Charcoal People” depicts the daily erosion of the Brazilian rain forest by the pig iron industry and the exploitation of its impoverished workers. “It’s a film that needs to be seen by a generation that can do something about the future.”

Adds Gillmore: “Part of the power of the documentary work we show is its ability to antagonize and appall you. The medium’s strength is to shock, provoke and excite.”

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