The term "independent film" is a catchphrase that usually alludes to an innovative endeavor made without commercial backing. But in recent years, the Sundance Film Festival, long considered the premiere independent film festival in America, has been criticized for showcasing mainstream, star-driven fare. I, however, found Sundance 2006 to be a promising blend of both up-and-coming filmmakers and recognized talent.
This was my fourth time attending Sundance, but I'd missed the previous two years because I was making the greatest sock puppet film noir ever created. OK, so the film I wrote and produced, The Lady from Sockholm, is the only sock puppet film noir ever created. But even if there were others, I'm sure Sockholm would be the pinnacle of the sock noir genre.
Of course, I wouldn't trade the experience of making a feature film for anything, but I was glad to be back at Sundance. Armed with a press pass, I planned to hit all the Georgia-related projects, plus some selected films that interested me as an artist. On the first day of the festival, I loaded my messenger bag with the Sundance essentials: lip balm, business cards and a cell phone to make after-screening party plans. It was a balmy 7 degrees outside.
First, I headed to a screening of Lucky Number Slevin, starring Bruce Willis, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman and Lucy Liu. Not exactly a bunch of starving artists, eh? I selected this film because the festival synopsis deemed it a "stylish film noir." But for me, the film was a bit derivative. The best part: Josh Hartnett spent several scenes clad in nothing but a towel.
Next up was The World According to Sesame Street, a documentary about how that beloved children's program is localized around the world. Instead of dubbing American episodes, producers reinvent the setting, characters and storylines to make an indigenous show for children in other countries.
The screening was packed with latte-laden press and industry bigwigs. But 15 minutes after Sesame Street started, there was a mass exodus for the door. By the time the film was over, less than half the audience remained. I wasn't yet anesthetized to the fact that once these industry types realize a film is not for them, they leave. OK, so Sesame Street wasn't exactly hard-hitting, but it was charming. As a fellow filmmaker, it's painful to see people walking out of a screening. But as a businesswoman, the old adage "time is money" is one that I must remember.
A documentary that did hold the audience's attention was American Blackout, which won a Special Jury Prize. The film is on U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney and her outspoken history on the Bush administration and black voter disenfranchisement. It's unfortunate that a Georgia filmmaker didn't see the potential in this homegrown topic. But huge kudos go to Los Angeles filmmaker Ian Inaba for a deft handling of this hot topic. Inaba uses McKinney and her political ups and downs to measure the changing tide of public sentiment.
In a memorable scene, McKinney's infamous quote on 9/11 and the Bush administration is taken to task by every major network. But we didn't initially hear the unabridged soundbite from the original radio interview. The director uses engaging visuals to enhance McKinney's words and show how the media's use of an ellipsis may have cost McKinney the 2002 Democratic nomination in her district. American Blackout was one of the best films I saw at Sundance this year and it earned a much-deserved standing ovation. I hope the film screens in Atlanta soon -- it needs to be seen and discussed by both McKinney's supporters and detractors.
Immediately following that screening, I had an important decision to make. Breakthrough Entertainment, one of Canada's top television distributors, was pushing me to sign an agreement for Sockholm. We had been negotiating back and forth for several weeks, but the company was eager to seal the deal. My attorney had assured me everything was fine, but still I looked over the signed contract for the millionth time before finally putting it on the fax machine.
I now officially had a distribution deal for Sockholm. But like most first-time filmmakers, the financial return for my work is still far down the line.
In contrast, two Georgia filmmakers at Sundance have a good chance of seeing monetary compensation for their films. Former Athens resident James Ponsoldt's Off the Black, starring two-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte, screened in the Spectrum program. Athens resident Hadjii cracked the coveted Dramatic Competition with his Southern-fried feature Somebodies -- a film that lacks big-name stars, but offers a lot of heart (the epitome of "independent film").
Serving as writer, director and lead actor, Hadjii explores the humorous world of Scottie, a college student who seems more apt to crack open a six-pack than a textbook. In addition to Hadjii's charismatic lead performance, a notable standout is Atlanta actor Chris Burns as Brad, a Campus Christian Crusader who tries to persuade Scottie to pick up a Bible and put down the beer. An adept character actor, Burns also made an impression as the smarmy restaurant manager in the Slamdance Film Festival feature The Other Side.
Coinciding with Sundance, the more counterculture Slamdance Film Festival focuses on first-time feature directors. Over the years, Slamdance has discovered a number of gems, like the 2005 documentary hit Mad Hot Ballroom.
Filmed in Atlanta, The Other Side is an original entry in the thriller/horror category from Georgia native Gregg Bishop. Bishop excels at directing action sequences, and he elicits an excellent performance from Nathan Mobley, who stars as Samuel North. The film centers on North's demise and his subsequent need to solve his own murder so he can escape from "the other side."
Other Georgians at Slamdance included the gaming companies Persuasive Games and Procedural Arts as finalists in the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. Kaneva, an Atlanta-based online digital entertainment destination, was also on hand and co-founders Chris Klaus and Greg Frame participated in several Slamdance panel discussions on Internet distribution.
It was really amazing to see so many Georgia projects showcased in Park City this year. The trip rejuvenated my outlook on the independent film industry and on local work in particular. I was also extremely proud of Atlantan Milt Thomas (Claire). A former resident of Tokyo, Thomas is inspired by Japanese folklore, and his unique vision secured him a coveted spot in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
So, I'm optimistic about the indie-film scene after seeing so many fresh flicks. Here's hoping the industry continues to evolve -- and that someone soon recognizes the genius of sock noir.
Lynn Lamousin is the writer and producer of The Lady from Sockholm, the world's first sock puppet feature film.
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