Three Gems From a Quiet Sundance

BY Arts Desk  January 28, 2009 at 5:21 PM EDT

It was kind of a tough time for filmmakers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, that annual nexus for lesser-seen cinema in Park City, Utah. Thanks to the recession, changing technology and an industry struggling to catch up, less than a dozen movies have found distributors, with many high-profile films leaving the festival without a buyer.

Each winter Sundance screens more than 100 films of independent fare — from world cinema, to documentaries, to smaller American productions — for some 50,000 visitors, many of whom come from the Hollywood studios to purchase and distribute films that otherwise would never get seen nationally. Sundance can catapult smaller filmmakers into the mainstream; many of its stars last year earned Academy Award nominations this year, including ‘Frozen River’ and ‘The Visitor.’

To start, many studio “specialty divisions” that produce independent movies have collapsed, including Warner Independent, which produced ‘There Will Be Blood,’ and Paramount Vantage, which made ‘March of the Penguins.’ This year, the biggest price tag for a movie was $3 million for ‘An Education’; last year, the goofy — and panned — comedy ‘Hamlet 2’ was sold for $10 million. Fewer celebrities descended on the festival than in years past, as well, and many came to promote their own films.

But the news is not all bad: ticket sales had a slight uptick from 2008, and many argue the only major loss is in swag and ostentation. Robert Redford, one of the founders of Sundance, told the Wall Street Journal that he could feel a change, “a return to our original purpose.”

Here are three films that, per Redford’s sentiment, we’re glad saw the light of day thanks to Sundance:

The Only Good Indian, directed by Kevin Willmott
‘The Only Good Indian’ trails a Native American boy removed from his home and forced into a training school to assimilate into white society in early 1900s Kansas. The revisionist western follows the boy’s escape, the Native American bounty hunter who attempts to bring him back and their battle against a combative sheriff. Written, filmed and produced in Kansas, the film was inspired by beautiful local backdrops and institutions like Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas.

Willmott says the plight of Natives Americans was a necessary and often untold narrative. “For someone like me, as an African-American, it is like people not knowing about Jim Crow,” explained Willmott, who also teaches film at Kansas. “If you don’t know about these boarding schools, then you don’t know Native Americans today.” According to Willmott, whose previous film, ‘C.S.A: Confederate States of America,’ screened at Sundance in 2005, “Sundance is the place where you can make a movie that is designed to correct some of the ills we’ve all had to live with in this country, or even to respond to them.” Willmott hopes to have a local premiere in conjunction with the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University.

Sergio, directed by Greg Baker
Sergio Vieira de Mello, born in 1948, was the sort of man who could infuse charm even into a vast bureaucracy like the United Nations. Described as a cross “between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy,” de Mello was the go-to man for political resolutions across the world. After some successes, de Mello was asked in 2003 to go to Iraq as special representative of the secretary general. Months later he was the target of a truck bomb that detonated beneath his office and buried him under 30 feet of rubble. He remained alive for hours and died after heroic rescue efforts failed.

Baker discovered de Mello’s story through Samantha Power’s book about his life and work with the U.N. The film also tells of the intense rescue effort, as told and re-enacted by the men who attempted it. “When people are relaying an experience that goes to the very core of their being, that’s about life and death and who they are as an individual, it…makes me feel privileged to be a filmmaker and to be given that story to tell,” said Baker, while adding, it is both “a great privilege and a great responsibility.” According to Baker, Sergio “was able to take the horrors he saw and internalize them and then step back into the halls of power and massage the system.” But he never forgot “that what he wanted to do was affect real change in the world and protect the dignity of ordinary people.” “Sergio” will air on HBO and the BBC later this year.

Dirt! The Movie, directed by Eugene Rosow and Bill Benenson
After the 2006 Sundance premiere of “An Inconvenient Truth” proved the financial, critical and popular viability of the eco-documentary genre, the festival’s documentary category has gotten considerably greener. Among the competition this year were filmmakers Rosow and Benenson, who gave themselves the mighty challenge of making a film about dirt. Taking “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth,” a book by William Bryant Logan, as their inspiration, the filmmakers decided that this essential, but oft-overlooked natural resource presented them with a wealth of material.

The film lays out many of the environmental, political and social conflicts caused by human abuse of the land, but more than that, it presents a dynamic profile of the living substance we use to make homes and grow our food.

“We don’t want to short change the dangers,” said Rosow, “but we do want audiences to come out with a sense of hope and empowerment.” Rosow is proud of the film’s broad appeal and versatility, citing receptive adult and school-age audiences, and hopes that it will be in theaters, on computer screens and in classrooms.