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Sundance Wrap-Up

The Documentary Audience Award, as determined by ballots cast after screenings, went to Hear and Now, Irene Taylor Brodsky's personal tale of her deaf parents' decision to have cochlear implant surgery.

Enemies of Happiness follows the courageous electoral campaign of Malalai Joya, an outspoken 27-year-old woman threatened with death by her Afghan opponents; it won the World Documentary Jury Prize.

The Future of Film

There was much hand-wringing about the film industry's future, with ebbing attendance at theaters nationwide and fear of piracy at a fever pitch.

But the industry in general and documentary filmmakers in particular could also be poised to reach broad new audiences if they can figure out how to bond with the iPod generation and make quality films for mobile phones.

"The future is wild," said Nancy Buirski of the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival, at a panel discussion about documentary filmmaking in the 21st century. "It's the new frontier, and we're all wondering what's going to happen."

The Sundance Channel, the cable-television arm of the Sundance Institute, is reaching new audiences with a screening room on Second Life, the online game community with more than 1 million users.

Strange Culture, a documentary about the legal plight of a Buffalo art professor accused by the federal government of bioterrorism after he called 911 to report his wife's death and local medics became suspicious about materials used in his art, premiered simultaneously in both Second Life and in Park City.

But new means of film distribution have created unexpected pressures, too, especially on documentary filmmakers.

The documentary film forum actually turned rowdy over the issue of distribution. Efforts by Sundance officials to quell the discord by changing the subject repeatedly failed, though, as one filmmaker after another stood up to share tales of unfair deals or labors lost.

If the price of a theatrical release for a film is the loss of DVD revenue or unknown future income streams, what should the filmmaker choose? If a film is streamed online, they pointed out, the filmmaker potentially could reach large audiences, but the film is less likely to be purchased for broadcast or theatrical distribution.

With so much change and so much at stake for filmmakers, simply being ambitious, creative or talented is not sufficient. The key to success, according to Buirski and others, is for documentary filmmakers to be well informed about the business and technology.

War Dance

Documentary filmmaking always comes down to money, and the Internet is "the future of sustainability for me," said Jennifer Fox, a panelist whose six-hour documentary, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, about the lives of women around the world, had a special screening at Sundance.

While Fox insists on retaining rights to her work, she said the Web can be used creatively to promote film tours or bolster the information contained in a film.

Another paramount concern for filmmakers, along with raising money or nailing deals, is finding audiences, and so film festivals and the lively discussions that take place along with screenings will remain vital, Fox pointed out.

"We still need Sundance," she continued. "We live in a world in of lemmings, and they need somebody to say, 'This is worth looking at.'"

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.
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