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THE SUNDANCE KIDS

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The gift shop in the Salt Lake City airport is called West of Brooklyn. Did the owner know that there would be so many Brooklyn-based filmmakers attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival, down the road in Park City?

During the festival, which ran Jan. 16­25, you couldn’t swing the press credentials hanging around your neck without hitting a director from Brooklyn. From first timers to veterans of the film festival wars, the borough was well represented once again.

Films at Sundance are organized into sections, and the largest representation of Brooklyn filmmakers was in the documentary competition, where five of them had films vying for the best documentary prize. All are political in tone.

Park Slope resident Barak Goodman’s "The Fight" seems at first glance to be a sports film about the famous rivalry between Joe Louis, a black American, and German Max Schmeling. But he highlights the political and nationalistic pressures put on the men by their respective countries, in addition to exploring racism in the U.S. and anti-Semitism in Hitler’s pre-WWII Germany. Louis and Schmeling fought only two matches against one another, but they had powerful implications, for the men personally, and the world at large.

Goodman has also made films for Public Broadcasting’s "Frontline." "The Fight" is his second film to show at Sundance.

"I’m a big sports fan, and I love boxing, so this subject was particularly appealing to me," he said.

Powerful interviews are part of what made this film such a strong contender. Goodman found friends of Louis and others who witnessed the fights.

"They were easy to get to talk, but much harder to find," Goodman said, but in Germany "people were more cautious talking about Schmeling. Louis, though, is such a hero, especially to African-Americans, that folks here loved to talk."

Although Schmeling is still living in Germany, he declined to be interviewed.

"Deadline," a film documenting the process that led to Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuting all the state’s death sentences in January 2003, was made by co-directors Kirsten Johnson of Williamsburg and Katy Chevigny (of Cobble Hill, till marriage took her away). In fact, more than commuting the sentences, Ryan gave a blanket clemency to the more than 150 prisoners on that state’s death row.

Both filmmakers have backgrounds in political and human rights-oriented work, and they happened upon these events while they were researching the Furman vs. Georgia 1972 decision that had abolished the death penalty in the United States until it was reinstated in 1976.

"One of our advisors told us of the clemency hearings that were going on in Chicago," Johnson told GO Brooklyn. "He basically said, ’Get on a plane and get over there.’" They filmed about 18 clemency hearings - Ryan had ordered one-hour clemency hearings for all death row inmates - which presented "a remarkable opportunity," Johnson said.

"The first couple of days it was standard coverage. All the media was there. But afterwards, the mainstream media left, and it was just us. It was amazing - we were allowed to treat it as a narrative film and move around the room with our camera, and things would just happen as we were filming [such as ardent pleas to spare the lives of loved ones]," she said.

When the governor decided to hold these hearings (having the notion that there were big problems with the capital punishment system in the state), he had a true deadline - his last day in office - and he had to make a decision by then.

Johnson spoke of the defining experience of the clemency hearings, "The governor didn’t do it lightly - you knew that. They started by finding those who were actually innocent and stopping their executions, but then realized that there was a problem with the entire justice system."

As for Sundance, Johnson felt that there was strong support for the film.

"We were delighted by how many people stayed after the screening for questions. They had some surprising responses," she said. An NBC executive who attended one of the screenings told her it was the fairest and most balanced view of the death penalty that he had seen.

Director Shola Lynch doesn’t live in Brooklyn (although as a teenage track star she ran many races at Pratt Institute), but the subject of her documentary, "Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed" is about a Brooklyn original - Shirley Chisholm who, in 1968, became the first black woman elected to Congress.

Lynch’s film follows Chisholm’s run for the presidency in 1972, which inspired hordes of people to get involved in politics when they discovered, through her campaign, that they could make a difference. One recalls how inspiring Chisholm was - this petite woman, looking less like a radical than anyone you can imagine, trying to wrest politics from the power brokers, and put it in the hands of the people.

Lynch was moved to make the film when she heard of Chisholm’s birthday on the radio. And how she located her subject could be a film in itself.

"I was at a bar with some girlfriends, and we started chatting up this cute guy," said Lynch. "Turns out his mother had just hosted a barbecue for Chisholm in Florida, where the former congresswoman now lives!"

"Persons of Interest," from Tobias Perse, of Fort Greene (and Alison Maclean of the West Village), gives voice to Muslim immigrants detained by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In "Heir to an Execution," Brooklynite Ivy Meeropol, granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (who were executed as spies in 1953) creates a personal film from a highly charged political period in U.S. history.

Another documentary, "Let the Church Say Amen," appeared in the American Spectrum section. This film about a Washington, D.C., parish that is the heart of its community was made by director David Petersen, of Park Slope, and producer Mridu Chandra, of Clinton Hill.

Chandra told GO Brooklyn that both she and Peterson have lived in Washington.

"We wanted to make a film about the city that dashed stereotypes," she said. "David makes films about community and I make films about people who try to change the world. Together, we told the story of this poor church in the shadow of the White House where people are trying to take control of their lives."

Also in American Spectrum were Jim McKay’s "Everyday People" and "Lbs.," the first feature by Midwood’s Matthew Bonifacio. McKay doesn’t live in Brooklyn (although he is looking for a place in Park Slope), but his story of the Jewish owner of a Brooklyn restaurant that caters to a black clientele feels so true that one would think he was born and raised here. The owner’s decision to sell to a big developer creates difficult choices for everyone - workers and customers alike.

McKay has been to Sundance before, so he is used to the constant state of frenzy that seems to exist. He’s happy to see locals at the screenings, and "the saving grace is there are a lot of great films to see," he said.

Bonifacio’s "Lbs.," is an intriguing hybrid. It was written by the director’s leading man, the then-315-pound Carmine Famiglietti. It is the story of a Brooklyn man with a serious food addiction who uses his own creativity to shed weight. And in the course of making the film, Famiglietti lost a total of 170 pounds.

Director and writer met as extras on a commercial, and Bonifacio was intrigued by Famiglietti’s determination to tell a compelling story and lose weight at the same time.

"We shot over the course of about two years, and shot in seasonal segments," Bonifacio said. This allowed Famiglietti to lose weight, which he had to do - there was no "plan B" if he didn’t lose it.


No contest

Two filmmakers were in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance. Rodney Evans, of Boerum Hill, wrote and directed "Brother to Brother," which is, among other things, a study of the life of Richard Bruce Nugent, "an academic intellectual with street smarts - Cornell West meets Quentin Crisp," says Evans.

Nugent died in the late ’80s, but Evans reaches beyond Nugent to paint a portrait of the artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

His first time at Sundance, Evans was enjoying parties and other screenings in between introducing his film at its premiere and fielding questions. And "Brother to Brother" enjoyed two Special Jury Awards: one for the film itself and a prize for actress Vera Farmiga.

Joshua Marston ("from the Italian part of Williamsbu­rg!") has written and directed a confident first feature, "Maria Full of Grace," the story of a young Colombian woman in Bogata who, in order to make a living, makes a run to New York as a drug mule and gets stranded in Queens.

Sitting in Renee’s, a vegetarian restaurant on Main Street in Park City, Marston related the journey from an idea to a premiere screening at Sundance. He studied political science at the University of Chicago, and although he moved to New York to study film at New York University, politics remain a strong influence.

"I am fascinated by immigrant stories," he explained. "And the stories of some Colombian immigrants are particularly dramatic." Marston had come upon the true story of a young woman who ran drugs, but the details of the circumstances that led to her decision to do it were most important to him.

"It’s really the story of a young woman searching for her place in the world," he said. "That is the most universal, most compelling aspect of the story," and it’s the one that moves it away from painting a stereotypical picture of Colombians all dealing drugs.

Yet the casting was difficult.

"I had to explain the deeper levels of the film for people to participate," Marston told GO Brooklyn. "And in the end, the most important reaction for me is from Colombians. In fact, there was a Colombian in the Sundance audience who gave me a thumbs-up."

This is a rare American film that is subtitled. Marston, who is fluent in Spanish, wrote the script in English, translated it into Spanish, and then worked with his actors on the dialogue.

All of his hard work paid off; on Saturday night, "Maria Full of Grace" won the audience award for best dramatic feature.

"I was utterly surprised by it," said Marston. "I had no expectation at all that that award would be coming our way. It is particularly meaningful as an indication that audiences respond to the film, that they have an emotional reaction to it and that it stays with them. This, more than anything else, is all that any filmmaker can hope for - to touch the viewers sitting in the audience.

"And it just goes to show that story can rise above all else - even subtitles. It is a profound tribute to all the people who helped bring ’Maria’ to life."

Park Sloper Lesli Klainberg came to Sundance with a documentary, "In the Company of Women," that she co-directed with Gini Reticker. Presented as a special event at the festival, it celebrates women filmmakers and the strides they’ve made over the years.


Short stuff

A bevy of Brooklynites also showed up at Sundance with short films in tow. Included were "Welcome to Life" by Jowan Carbin, and "Sangam," by Prospect Heights resident Prashant Bhargava, another film that deals with immigration issues.

"Scrabble," by Jay and Mark Duplass, shows a friendly board game gone terribly wrong. Mark lives in Greenpoint, Jay in Williamsburg, and the brothers made this film as they’ve made other shorts - Mark wrote the script in one day, and they shot it in one day. Although Mark’s girlfriend, who plays the lead, did help with her character’s dialogue.

"She tells me I don’t know how to write for girls," said Mark.

The Duplass brothers are starting to work on features.

Jay told GO Brooklyn, "We’ve got two scripts we’re trying to sell, but we want to make features like our shorts - very low concept."

Last but certainly not least, filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck brought their short film, "Gowanus, Brooklyn," to Sundance. The film comes from a feature script they had written.

"We took one scene from the feature and built a new story with the same sentiment," said Boden.

"The short is sort of sweet, while the feature is a bit edgier," Fleck added.

The film is a cinematic sketch of a teenage student who happens upon her teacher’s secret life, and it was cast with a lot of local talent, especially Shareeka Epps, who plays Drey, the student. Epps was "discovered" at MS 51 in Park Slope, and she came out to Sundance, too.

"Shareeka didn’t say much in response to the festival, because she’s so stoic," said Fleck, "but she couldn’t hide the fact that she had an amazing time."

To add to the fun, the film won the Short Jury prize. When introduced to Jake Gyllenhaal ("Moonlight Mile," "Donnie Darko"), Epps asked him, "Jane who?" and later realized he was a movie star and the host of the awards ceremony. This young lady gave the Hollywood types a dose of reality!

Before I left Sundance, I saw a Finnish documentary about a bizarre chorale group called "Screaming Men" whose only U.S. performance was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Is Brooklyn the newest center of the cultural universe as well as a filmmaking hot spot? It may be time to transform the Brooklyn Navy Yard into film studios after all.

Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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