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Locals at the Sundance Film Festival

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Planet
Friday January 18, 2002

As Avon Kirkland spoke to the Daily Planet on his cell phone from Park City, Utah, he was interrupted by an invitation from a PBS television executive to come have a drink. He told them he would join them in a minute. 

Kirkland’s documentary, “Ralph Ellison: An American Journey” is now being screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where meeting with potential exhibitors, comparing war stories with other filmmakers, dialoguing with critics and filmgoers and taking in as many films as possible can make the high-profile, high-altitude film festival a heady swirl of giddy appreciation and thrilling potential. 

“I’m getting over a cold, and getting over the thin air,” said Kirkland last Tuesday, who was busy working on promoting the remaining screenings of his documentary. Kirkland is one of several Berkeley-based filmmakers whose films have been invited to compete at Sundance, one of the world’s more prestigious and certain most lauded film festival showcasing independent and emerging filmmakers, co-founded 20 years ago by movie star Robert Redford. 

Sundance insists its selections be premieres, and “Ralph Ellison: An American Journey,” was completed a scant two weeks ago. Created for the PBS television series “American Masters,” to be broadcast in February, the episode is about the famed and elusive author of Invisible Man, a powerhouse novel about race in America featuring the disoriented and deeply angry protagonist Bigger Thomas. Although Ellison wrote reams of essays in his long writing career, he never completed a second novel and has become as enigmatic as his Bigger in American letters. 

Audiences expressed they learned a lot about Ellison after seeing the film, said Kirkland of the lengthy post-screening question-and-answer sessions the festival schedule allows.  

Meeting directly with a film’s premiere viewers is one of the rewards of the festival, he added. 

Filmmaker Gail Dolgin said the Q&As following the screenings of “Daughter From Danang” were often an hour long. Her film about an American woman reuniting with her Vietnamese mother evoked personal responses, and she said the discussions cut short by festival staff preparing the theater for the next screening often continued in the lobby. 

Dolgin’s story begins in 1975 with Operation Baby Lift, wherein children in Vietnamese orphanages (many fathered by American GIs) were airlifted out of the country to American adoptive parents. Some of those orphans were not really orphans. 

The film’s audiences were touched by the denouement, said Dolgin, “but it’s hard to talk about without giving away the drama.” 

Dolgin, whose office on the fourth floor of the Fantasy Building in West Berkeley is down the hall from Kirkland’s, said the festival’s competition brings with it a thread of anxiety.  

Her film is already slated to be broadcast on the PBS series “American Experience” in early 2003, so when the idea of competition grips her she said she backs off the worrying and remembers the festival is a supportive atmosphere. Simply being accepted at Sundance “boosts any film.” 

“Sundance is on everyone’s radar,” said Johnny Symons, whose documentary about gay partners adopting children, “Daddy and Papa” is also currently screening at the festival. The film has not yet been picked up for distribution or broadcast, and acceptance to Sundance means viewers and critics will see the work and the social and political issues it brings up. He says the film’s future is bright: “Signs are really good that this is the beginning.” 

“Daddy and Papa” follows four gay couples through their adventures in adopting and parenting. One of the subjects is Symons himself, and he said audiences were curious about his family. His partner and two children were in attendance for the early days of the festival, but “Sundance isn’t set up for a 2 year-old and a 3 month-old,” and Symons is spending the rest of the “10-day shmooze fest” without them. 

The House of Docs is the place at Sundance for documentary filmmakers to shmooze and discuss and pat each other on the shoulder. For the past couple years the festival has established the House as a hospitality suite and seminar hall for those filmmakers which are often overlooked in the shadow of the more popular feature narrative filmmakers. 

“We’re increasingly treated well,” said Kirkland, describing the House of Docs as “bigger than any Berkeley hotel lobby.” He said he attended a workshop on art and politics because they are topics at the core of his film. Other seminars include “Filmmaker to Filmmaker: Whose Story Is It?” moderated by Jon Else, “Open Outcry,” head of the documentary department at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism; and “Changing the Subject: Women and Documentary” featuring panelist Frances Reid, maker of “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” and another tenant of the Fantasy Building’s fourth floor. 

The Sundance publicity material says “The House of Docs is a community space designed to increase awareness of documentary film and to provide support to documentary filmmakers.” The filmmakers who attend concur. 

“Sundance is respectful of documentaries,” said Dolgin. “Robert Redford was present at the House of Docs and spoke with great sincerity about how important docs are.” 

“Documentaries from around the globe that bear witness to issues of human rights, social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression bring forth truth in ways which can have a profound effect on societies and lives,” said Redford in the Sundance publicity material.  

Sundance puts their money where their mouth is. The Sundance Institute – the entity that put on the film festival – announced on January 13 the International Documentary Fund to grant money to filmmakers documenting human rights issues.  

The Sundance Channel, another product of the Sundance Institute which recently became available on Bay Area cable television, will soon launch a documentary cable channel, which will provide another outlet for documentary filmmakers’ work to be seen. Kirkland is hopeful; he’s been shmoozing with the programmers.