THE SUNDANCE KIDS - Brooklyn Paper


Brooklyn in Utah: Brooklyn filmmakers and films set in Brooklyn flooded this year's Sundance Film Festival included "Maria Full of Grace" featuring Catalina Sandino Moreno with director Joshua Marston.
Christobel Corral Vega / HBO

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

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

"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.

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