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Sundance Wrap-Up

The rise of documentaries and digital distribution were explored at this seminal independent film festival.

Editor's Note: Part 1 of this series offered a preview to the Sundance Film Festival.

Chicago 10, the opening film of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, set an ebullient tone for the 10 days of film screenings and celebrity preening in Park City, Utah.

It also reflected the ascendancy of documentary film at Sundance, one of the world's preeminent showcases of independent film.

In terms of connecting with and moving audiences, pound for pound, the documentaries outweighed the narratives.

Chicago 10

, depicting the days of unrest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, is a hybrid documentary, as the director Brett Morgen calls it, frenetically switching between archival footage, animation, actors' narration and music. The film weaves a loud, loose and unapologetically activist position on the events, which culminated in police violence and a kangaroo court trial that turned seven antiwar demonstrators into national celebrities.

This is not a film with talking heads. Morgen said he sought to create a "film experience" of the thrill of the protest and anger over the Vietnam war, while rallying more outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

Morgen, 38, was born weeks after the 1968 convention.

"I made the movie because it was the kind of movie I wanted to go see, to mobilize the youth of this country to get out there and stop this ... war!" Morgen shouted after the premiere to loud applause. "Let's go out there and get it started, right here and right now."

Much Sundance buzz inevitably revolves around distribution deals or celebrity sightings, actor and Sundance founder Robert Redford acknowledged in remarks to reporters before the premiere. But "by opening the festival with this film, we are making a statement about the importance of documentary film."

The festival certainly featured numerous outstanding narrative films, including the dramas

Grace is Gone


Dark Matter


The Good Night

, all of which have planned or expect to have theatrical releases.

But this year's narrative films were widely perceived as a critical letdown compared to some previous festivals. A 1989 festival winner, Steven Soderbergh's

sex, lies, and videotape

, is said to have invigorated and revolutionized the independent film movement; no such clear innovator was present this year.

Midway through the festival, Sundance attendees had a mood boost after the Academy Award nominations were announced. Among the contenders are nine for films that premiered at the 2006 festival, including

Little Miss Sunshine


An Inconvenient Truth


Iraq in Fragments


Cinema Verite

The best documentaries I saw at Sundance offer a vital or fresh lens on the world.

The simultaneously heart-rending and uplifting

War Dance

explores the violent and grief-stricken lives of three Ugandan children as they prepare for a national dance competition.

Crazy Love

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is the bizarre tale of a violently tortured and dysfunctional relationship of two New Yorkers.

Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)

, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize, is a frightening exploration of the connections between extreme violence and corruption in Brazil.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

(expected to air on


) investigates how the infamous U.S. prison in Iraq became synonymous with torture, and is powerfully told from the perspectives of the American guards who perpetuated the abuses.

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."


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.

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.'"

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Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.