More Than a Festival, Less Than a Movement
At Slamdance, tenderness, anger, and a very steep slope
"What should I write?" It's a couple hours after the Slamdance premiere of Letters From the Other Side, Austinite Heather Courtney's documentary about Mexican families left behind by fathers' and brothers' emigration to the U.S. for work, and the director struggles with what to post on the blog she agreed to keep for IndieWire during the festival. So, she reads aloud from what she's been typing into her laptop.
"I wish the women in my film could have been there to get the recognition they deserve, and experience others watching their stories unfold on screen. But it is nearly impossible to get a tourist visa to the U.S. if you're a Mexican without a lot of money. In the middle of checking into it for the future, but for now I'll be sure to tell them everyone seemed to really like them."
"What else should I say?" Of course, what she's written is just right, and everybody tells her. It's a statement that comes from the same chamber of the heart as the film itself, but it's also quiet and humble in the midst of a scrappy upstart festival that must itself struggle to be heard above the din from and attracted by the bigger show down the hill from headquarters at Park City's Treasure Mountain Inn.
At Slamdance, the crew behind the feature comedy The Guatemalan Handshake drives around in the film's wedge-shaped little two-seater car, while the subjects of the documentary BIKE loop through the streets on their custom double-decker circus rides, and The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang title alone offers a punchline, synopsis, and cult all rolled into one. Plus, there's a dude wandering around dressed as God. A filmmaker can feel conspicuous by a gimmick's absence here, and what with the added attention-deficit challenge of guys in bacteria costumes shilling cold treatments, the Toxic Avenger and friends out Tromadancing, and the HBO Documentaries publicity squad covering everybody's posters with ads for movies that aren't playing in a Park City festival, it's easy to worry that you'll draw audiences entirely composed of friends, family, and crew members who might just as likely get distracted sighting celebrities and miss the screening.
Luckily, those fears prove unfounded, as the festival has come to provide a welcoming home for documentaries in moods angry and tender that could only be cheapened by attention-grabbing stunts, however necessary they might seem. Abduction, for instance, fascinatingly details the bizarre kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korea's Kim Jong Il, while The Empire in Africa delivers a necessary shock to the system with its accounting of atrocities in Sierra Leone, and Do You Remember Me? follows the heartbreaking story of a family afflicted with AIDS in Thailand.
Founder Dan Mirvish likes to characterize Slamdance as "more than a festival and less than a movement," noting proudly that not much has really changed during its 12-year run. "The stories are still the same; people are still making movies the same way. ... You might lose half your friends making the film, and then make a bunch of new ones when you come here. And, from there, it's like a year-round network of filmmakers helping each other out."
Rather than reciting a litany of big sales at the festival, which still remain the exception and not the rule (last year's Mad Hot Ballroom notwithstanding), Mirvish can regale you with horrific tales of filmmaking and personal disasters befalling past Slamdancers, up to and including the one about a fall from a ladder that landed him in the wheelchair he's getting around in this year. But they all resolve into stories of filmmakers helping one another out, as evidenced by Mirvish's arrival at the annual Slamdance Sled-Off, a not-quite-legal occupation of a ski slope requiring an intensely steep climb not remotely accessible by wheelchair.
Representing Austin at the event is director Paul Gordon of the well-received competition feature comedy Motorcycle, taking a break from excavating his posters from beneath the HBO onslaught. A guy from the Call of Cthulhu crew lends a sled to Team Motorcycle, which I join. We win points for spectacle, as Gordon and cinematographer David Hartstein spin and flip down the slope and this reporter gets caught and yanked down the hill by another team's drag-racing-style parachute. Actors Chris and Melissa Pratt and their daughter Zoe look on as filmmakers slide one after another down the hill and into a human shield of other filmmakers and festival staff who keep them from flying off the edge and down a slope so steep it's nearly a cliff.
When Letters From the Other Side runs as the festival closer, it's a screening notably attended by an appreciative crowd of documentarians, and if not by Courtney's subjects, as she'd wished, at least by her crew from Mexico. At the Q&A, Karla Priego Martinez, who provided a song for the film, tells of her trouble at customs when an officer thought she said she'd be attending "Islam-dance," and then simply offers a live performance. The audience is riveted, and for a moment Courtney feels two very different worlds brought into one place.