February 3, 2008

Park City Dispatch. 9.

Plot Point More shorts and more takes from Brian Darr; also, two feature-length docs that roused lots of interest in Park City last month and one that pretty much slipped out of the spotlight.

If you've made a short film that's been accepted into Sundance, one of the first things you might be curious about is whether it's going to play as part of a program of shorts or as a warm-up for a feature. There are advantages and disadvantages of each path. Since there is only a certain subset of Sundance-goers interested in attending shorts programs, as anecdotally evidenced by the shrugs often elicited when I'd compare screening notes with strangers in festival rush lines and shuttles and lead off with enthusiasm for one of these programs, a slot before a feature film may be a better means of exposing your work to the unconverted. But if you want to be able to engage your audience in post-screening Q&A sessions, being part of a collection in which no one film is the focus of attention is the only sure way to go.

The New Frontier Shorts program screening at the Tower Theatre, for example, was followed by a lively back-and-forth between the relatively sparse audience and the three filmmakers in attendance. These were Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, who was gleeful just to be at Sundance with his videogame- and Martha Colburn-inspired pieces Gas Zappers and Because Washington is Hollywood For Ugly People; Tony Gault, who described the background of his tribute to his brother, Count Backwards From Five; and Andrea Fasciani, who explained but did not try to over-explain the inspiration for the bizarre but unpretentious Buyo: a friend with a distinctive voice and an ex-girlfriend who was willing to be in the film as long as her head would not be shown. I only wished Nicolas Provost had been there so I could ask him how he got his footage for Plot Point, a fascinating appropriation of Hollywood narrative techniques to an anti-narrative film.

In contrast, Daniel Robin, whose my olympic summer unearthed home movies of his parents on the eve of their involvement in the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, might have been a bit disappointed in the circumstances of the Sundance premiere screening of his short at Park City's Library Center Theatre. Just before the screening, he mentioned that he'd have something to tell the audience about his film, which poignantly marries the previously-undeveloped footage to a voiceover track and to a German-language version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." But he never got a chance. Presumably any disappointment didn't last long, and must certainly have been wiped out by the time my olympic summer received the Sundance Shorts Jury's top prize. I'm still curious about what it was he wanted to tell us.

Nerakhoon But that afternoon's Q&A belonged wholly to Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, whose documentary feature, 23 years in the making, wowed a packed audience that Kuras joked was half-filled with filmmakers she'd worked with before in her Sundance-studded career. Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) illustrates the inextricable intersection between the personal and the political. It's a chronicle of a family forced to flee the world's most heavily-bombed nation, Laos, and find an uneasy refuge in the country responsible for those bombs: the United States. The family's crime-ridden Brooklyn neighborhood is described as "Hell on Earth" by the mother of subject and co-director Thavisouk Phrasaveth, and there is plenty of footage in support of that sentiment. But just as in life, it's impossible to predict the turns Thavisouk's family life will undertake, which makes it all the more remarkable that cameras are there to document so much, so beautifully. Especially impressive are a series of shots taken in Laos, simulating the family's escape through the wilderness and across the Mekhong River into Thailand.

I found myself reminded of a Scott MacDonald quote I'd recently unearthed while researching a piece on George Kuchar for the upcoming edition of Senses of Cinema. In the July 1997 issue of The Independent Film & Video Monthly, MacDonald wrote that "no contradiction necessarily exists between witnessing social/political horror and a love of the image, and indeed, these two concerns can be fundamentally synergetic." He wrote this in reference to a notorious flare-up between Kuchar and some other attendees of the 42nd Robert Flaherty Seminar, where Kuchar's Weather Diary 1 was shown alongside works of intense political resistance by the likes of Alanis Obomsawin and Merata Mita. In a film like Nerakhoon, sorrow, pain, and regret are so evident that it's necessary that the film be as artful as it is to keep the viewer committed. When this balance between emotion and aesthetics is upended, as it is in Yasukuni, about a controversial shrine to Japan's war dead, it can be unbearable to the point of undermining any messages the filmmakers wish to convey.

American Teen James Rocchi has a good quote about Sundance and independent film: that they serve as an "escape from escapism" found at the average multiplex. So then, is a film like American Teen an "escape from the escape from escapism"? American Teen follows four Indiana high school students from various walks of campus life, each representing a type familiar to everyone who's seen a John Hughes movie. It goes down smoothly; we're less apt to ask just what makes the institution of the American high school the way it is than to wonder how director Nanette Burstein captured footage of intimate phone calls and naughty text-messaging sessions. Anyone who went to school in this country is likely to relate to the challenges facing one or more of these main characters. Well, at least anyone straight and white.

- Brian Darr

Maggie Lee reviewed Yasukuni for the Hollywood Reporter when it screened at the Pusan International Film Festival.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 3, 2008 7:01 AM