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Sundance: Art, Politics, Business in the Slush

Pat Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University and is the author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. In the post below Aufderheide reports back from Sundance.

Whew! It’s finally over, the longest 10 days of the year. The Sundance Film Festival awards have been announced, and all 50,000 of us festival-goers have cleaned up our condos, slipped on our Uggs for what we hope is the last time this season, and begun to make sense of the blizzard of business cards we’ve collected.

I want my I Survived Sundance T-shirt.

The Sundance Film Festival is the biggest U.S. market for independent and documentary film. Sundancers of course pretend it’s not a market; it’s really all about the art. But the parties aren’t just the place you’ll probably eat what substitutes for your lunch or dinner. They are serious work. And when somebody leaves the party, well, that means the 9780195182705.jpgdeals are beginning in one of the many functional if unlovely motel rooms and condos of Park City.

Dealmaking has been good for documentaries this year, and it’s not half done. The first eight sales at the festival were all documentaries, perhaps showing just how hungry programmers are for product at a time when the writers’ strike is bogging down production. The glamorous ones got high visibility. For instance, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, by Nanette Burstein, almost immediately went to HBO domestically and to the Weinstein Brothers internationally. Meanwhile, the Grand Jury Prize winner, Trouble the Water, by longtime Michael Moore crew members Tia Lessen and Carl Deal—about Hurricane Katrina as a social and political catastrophe, from the viewpoint of 9th Ward victims—was still doing deals at festival’s end.

But sometimes it actually is about the art. Up the Yangtze, for instance, by Canadian Yung Chang and produced through the National Film Board of Canada, is aesthetically elegant, emotionally rich, and politically provocative. A luxury-liner full of international tourists going up the soon-to-be-flooded Yangtze (by the Three Gorges Dam) is served by youngsters who come from the flooded-out villages and farms on the Yangtze’s banks. This is globalization on a boat. Look for Up the Yangtze in theaters (and that’s where you’ll want to see it, if you can, because of the stunning cinematography and the superb editing), before it shows up on the public broadcasting series P.O.V. this year. Up the Yangtze’s deal making was done before the fest began.

Sometimes it’s about the politics. Look at Flow: for Love of Water, a solidly argued film by Irena Salina. After this film, you’ll never buy bottled water again. It efficiently and persuasively argues that the planet’s water supply is imperiled by chronic poor management in the interests of the wealthy, and that big business interests in privatized water are making problems worse, with the help of politicians they buy. Species survival will depend on political will–our ability to elect the right politicians and make them listen to us. The film exemplifies an emerging genre in the spirit of An Inconvenient Truth —let’s call it apocalyptic activism–and is building an action website at flowthemovie.com. This movie will reach you by any means possible.

Sometimes it’s about opportunity. Easily the most impressive short I saw while at Sundance was Tadashi Nakamura’s Pilgrimage, a retelling of the civil rights movements Japanese-Americans waged to get recognition of World War II internment. (One of the heroes is Tadashi’s dad, Robert.) It’s a great story, 1970s history told with 21st century music. This is both a film worth watching, and also a calling card for Tadashi. Look for him.

It’s art and it’s business. The effect is always political; when documentaries and audiences meet, things happen. The mix is messy, like the slush at Sundance.

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