For a long stretch of the ’90s and ’00s, you could bank on at least one Bay Area filmmaker scoring a slot in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival. With shutouts in the just-announced 2009 lineup as well as 2008, that’s no longer the case. This trend doesn’t necessarily signify some precipitous decline in the quality of local docs, although it is somewhat unsettling. But we can take a measure of comfort in the numerous Bay Area filmmakers represented in Sundance’s other sections, notably a pair of daring feature narratives screening out of competition.
Oakland cinematographer and award-winning short filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw makes his feature debut with the domestic drama Everything Strange and New, starring Jerry McDaniel, Beth Lisick, Rigo Chacon Jr. and Luis Saguar. This portrait of a man juggling his family, sexuality and drug addiction "is on the bleak side," Bradshaw says. Across the bay, S.F. writer-director Peter Bratt landed his brother Benjamin for the lead role in La Mission (aka Mission Street Rhapsody), the saga of a Latino man wrestling with his son’s homosexuality.
Both films will screen in the Spectrum program, designed to showcase fiction films that eschew conventional (read commercial) subjects and slants. "A poetic take on narrative" is the way Bradshaw describes his approach. "I think I’m an experimental filmmaker," he says. "But the audience experiences it as a narrative work."
I’m reminded of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days and Paranoid Park, and Bradshaw readily accepts the comparison. "There are a lot of moments [in Van Sant’s work] that belong to experimental film that are integrated into the narrative, and that’s pretty true of my work as well," he says.
Bradshaw shot Everything Strange and New on Super 16 rather than HD or another digital format, an increasingly rare aesthetic choice. "I’m still a hardened believer in film," he declares. "Film has nuance that I don’t see in any electronic capture. I deal in nuance; that’s my currency."
Much as Bradshaw would like to sell his film to a distributor at Sundance, his orientation is closer to that of an artist than a businessman. Asked if he aspires to quit his day job and focus on his own features, he was polite but firm. "There’s a bumper sticker I see now and again: Real musicians have day jobs. I think that’s kind of true of filmmakers. I don’t expect that I’m ever going to get rich making my own films. I make my living as a cinematographer shooting independent films, and it’s the best job on the planet and I wouldn’t want to give it up anyway."
The Mission and beyond
Thirteen years after Follow Me Home, La Mission marks Peter Bratt’s return to the director’s chair and Sundance. We weren’t able to reach him for a quote, but we trust you won’t mind if we substitute Benjamin Bratt’s recent comments to TV Guide:
"It’s about a reformed old school O.G. who’s now a humble Muni bus driver who is a leader of a low rider club. [He] discovers that his pride and joy, the apple of his eye, his 18-year-old son, who is about to go off to UCLA as a graduating senior from Mission High School, he discovers that he’s gay. So the film explores his violent reaction to that news and the process he must go through to come to some sort of acceptance or tolerance within the confines of one of the most liberal, progressive cities in the country. I think you’ll be hearing more about it."
Several Bay Area filmmakers have short works playing during the festival, including Sam Green and Carrie Lozano’s tour of the South China Mall near Guangzhou, Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall. Jenni Olson pairs images she shot on the Milk set of the Castro Camera Store with the prescient audio recording that the late supervisor taped in the same location in 1977 in 575 Castro St. Those short docs are joined by Sandra Lea Gibson and Luis Recoder’s experimental black-and-white work Untitled.
Elsewhere in the program, Martha Colburn, Sam Green, and George Kuchar accepted the challenge of the whimsical Lunchfilms program, wherein a filmmaker is given the ground rules for a project over lunch—and a budget equal to the cost of the meal.
The Bay Area contingent at Sundance will also include Wendy Levy, who assembled and moderates the panel "The New Documentary Movement: Emerging Technologies and Participatory Culture" Jan. 22 in Park City. The director of creative programming at Bay Area Video Coalition, Levy oversees BAVC’s Producers Institute for New Media Technologies residency program. Adopt Links, an ambitious online resource for Korean adoptees around the world developed by local filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem (First Person Plural and the just-completed sequel Precious Objects of Desire) at the Producers Institute, is one of the projects that’ll be highlighted at this event (although Liem has a conflict and won’t be attending).
A number of filmmakers with past ties to the Bay Area will premiere their latest work at Sundance, notably actor-musician Cory McAbee with Stingray Sam, a musical space-Western comprised of six 11-minute segments. Documentary veteran Stanley Nelson, who shuttered his Oakland office and returned to New York in August, unveils Wounded Knee, the climactic fifth chapter in a major PBS series on Native American history. The Chronicle reported a film in dramatic competition (Don’t Let Me Drown) comes from a screenplay by Maria Topete of Oakland. And German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck (Mostly Martha), who studied film for three-plus years at S.F. State, will be on hand for the world premiere of Helen, a drama about a shrink (Ashley Judd) dealing with depression and Goran Visnjic.
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