"It’s been ‘TheYear of the Documentary’
for at least the past two years,” quipped Sundance
Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore dryly as he
dodged a question about the validity of Sundance 1999’s
muchbandied-about tagline. Nonetheless, documentaries
did indeed garner a surprising amount of attention
at this year’s festival.

Last year’s string of narrative competition
dazzlers was a tough act to follow, but several features
did stand out. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchezs The
Blair Witch Project practically reinvented the horror
genre with its scary pseudodocumentary format. The
moviemakers kicked off the buying season by signing
a distribution deal with Artisan Entertainment after
the film’s sold-out midnight premiere on the first


Mark Illsley’s quirky comedy Happy
also made a splash when it closed with
Miramax for an alleged $7-10 million. The 24
Hour Woman
, by festival veteran Nancy Savoca,
was very well received; Michael Polish’s complex Twin
falls Idaho
and Thom Fitzgerald’s sexy Beefcake also
drew favorable notices. But stealing the show for
quality, range and dramatic content was a documentary
program that generated at least as much excitement
as the narratives. Roko and Adrian Belies Genghis
won the Documentary Audience Award with
the story of a blind bluesman’s triumphant journey
to the heart of Asia, in his quest for the ancient
throatsinging tradition. Unanimous acclaim and a
distribution deal with Sony Classics went to Chris
Smith’s American Movie, winner of the Grand
Jury Prize for Documentary, which brought the subject
matter of indie filmmaking to a metaphorical level.
Shot at the famed Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, Nanette
Burstein and Brett Morgen’s poignant On the Ropes pieced
together the stories of three young boxers and their
coach as they trained for the 1997 Golden Gloves
Tournament. Rich photography and keen editing blurred
the line between documentary and fiction and won
the film a Special Jury Prize. Barbara Sonneborn’s
harrowing Regret to Inform, (a subsequent
Academy Award nominee) won the Director’s Award.
Other films that created a stir included the controversial
and always sold-out Sex: the Annabel Chong Story,
by Gough Lewis, the Hughes brothers’ American
, Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow,
and Jon Else’s Sing Faster: the Stagehands’ Ring
, winner of the Filmmaker’s Trophy.


“One of the qualities that made this
group so impressive, and the reason why they can be
viewed as a group” concedes Gilmore in a phone interview
a few days after the festival,”is the significance
of the subject matter and the way the filmmakers explored
themes of the American subculture. American Movie,
American Pimp, On the Ropes,
and Genghis Blues were
not necessarily considered documentary material in
the past:’ Citing, among others, last year’s Academy
Awardnominated The Farm, by Liz Garbus and Jonathan
Stack and Vicky Funari’s Paulina, Gilmore explains
that “What’s happening is a real revolution in this
country as far as the aesthetics of documentaries.
Documentaries have now evolved from the idea of personal
doc into a distinctive vision that has built in the
last decade-they’re no longer educational. Technological
progress, the so-called digital revolution-much talked
about in recent years-is taking longer than expected,
but has opened up possibilities by lowering costs.
Downsizing crews and equipment has freed filmmakers
stylistically and is changing the model aesthetic in
documentaries-the filmmaker brings complexity to the
work and strong emotional content. There’s a certain
intimacy in documentaries like Barbara Kopple’s Wild
Man Blues
and American Hollow-there’s an
intimacy and emotional closeness that’s absolutely

Sugar Town

Robert Altman’s latest effort, Cookie’s
, opened the festival with a comically
dark look at the idiosyncrasies of an all women,
three-generation, small-southern-town family. Featuring
seamless ensemble work from a cast that includes
Glenn Close, Charles Dutton, Patricia Neal, Liv Tyler
and Julianne Moore, the film segues between generations
exposing, now playfully, now morbidly, the longings,
appetites, phobias and dark secrets of each of the
women. On a decidedly darker note was Tim Roth’s
provocative directorial debut The War Zone,
based on Alexander Stuart’s wrenching novel about
incest. Darkest of all, Errol Morris’s riveting new
documentary, the work in-progress Mr. Death: The
Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
drew a
perplexing portrait of the man who authored The Leuchter
Report, a document alleging the nonexistence of gas
chambers at Nazi Death Camps. “Human beings can believe
absolutely everything,” mused Errol Morris at the
Q&A after the screening, maintaining that “Sick,
sad and funny” are the three basic ingredients of
my films.” Lighter fare included Allison Anders and
Kurt Voss’s centerpiece premiere, the spirited Sugar
, Scott Sanders’ ingenious debut Thick
as Thieves
and Doug Liman’s (Swingers) follow-up
film, Go.

An otherwise fairly flat Dramatic Features
competition category spawned a tantalizing directorial
debut by Hampton Fancher with The Minus Man and
the Lili Taylor-starrer A Slipping Down Life,
by Toni Kalem, based on Anne Tyler’s novel. Fittingly
winning three prizes in a ceremony vaguely resembling
the Academy Awards was Tony Bui’s Three Seasons.
Set in post-war Vietnam, Bui’s melodramatic tale about
redemption won best Cinematography for Lisa Rinzler’s
arresting issues/33/images, as well as the Audience and Grand
Jury Awards. Among other winners were Audrey Wells’s
radiant Guinevere, picked up by Miramax, featuring
fine performances by leads Stephen Rea and Sarah Polley,
and tied the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award with Frank
Whaley’s Joe the King. Eric Mendelsohn won the
Directing Award for Judy Berlin. The Filmmakers
Trophy went to Gavin O’Connor’s delicate and exuberant Tumbleweeds,
nabbed by Fineline a few days before the end of the
festival. The Cinematography Award for documentary
went to Emiko Omori for Rabbit in the Moon and
Regret to Inform. Despite more than a few bursts
of genuine inspiration on both fiction and documentary
fronts, Sundance 1999 remains a year that escapes definition
and is perhaps best summarized by Robert Redford’s
opening night remarks: “Independent Film is not into
answering but into questioning, for as long as there
are filmmakers of passion, vision and commitment it
will never be dull, and that’s the way we like it” MM