By JOANN VALENTI
From last year's Sloan Award winner, "Grizzly Man," to this year's triple-whammy documentaries, "Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon," "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and "An Inconvenient Truth" featuring Al Gore's traveling lecture on global warming (www.participate.net), Sundance films tackle many of the stories found under the bylines of environmental journalists. The medium may differ but the challenge of delivering the message seems much the same, perhaps imbued with more overt passion.
Since 1992 I had regularly exposed my Brigham Young University students to the excitement of the nearby festival, a sometimes risky undertaking given the unrated nature of the films premiering from all over the world. This year's films came from 32 countries – from Argentina and Australia to Thailand and the United Kingdon, with countries from every continent in between. For 10 years, I held my breath not over country of origin, but over the raw truth and colorful language ever present in independent films, even those with apparent environment themes. I never regretted the course's "optional" attendance at the films, and nary a student walked out…or reported me. Attending this year as credentialed press to cover the Sloan Award was a real treat for a retired professor.
Redford's vision to promote the "indie" world and diversity in films has moved from humble beginnings – how do you get people, especially from L.A., to trek to the mountains during winter's peak to watch grainy non-studio pictures – to goliath proportions. This year more than 46,000 industry reps, talent agents, celebrities, fans, and some 1,500 members of the press converged on Park City, Utah. By diversity, the Sundance folks mean films about issues and cultures generally considered too risky, or not marketable enough for Hollywood. At the opening press conference Redford said his focus now is on short films highlighting voices from around the world that might not otherwise be heard.
More than 40 of this year's programmed screenings involved gay/lesbian stories; other films featured contemporary Iraqi, Palestinian, Mexican border, South African or other political hot topics. Musicians and their music, from Neil Young and Leonard Cohen to rap artists, were the subjects of films. Health issues – ALS, eating disorders, cancer – were the focus of documentaries and features. And then there were maybe four of the over 100 selected for the ten-day event that clearly met the Sloan science standard.
Unlike other award categories at Sundance, contenders for the Sloan Award are not announced, nor were the award jurors named until the reception when the winning film was announced. No reason given. Judges change each year. This year's panel included three scientists: Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute; Dr. John Underoffler of MIT; and Dr. Martha Farah, cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania; plus filmmakers Greg Harrison and Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Watch for the winning film, "House of Sand" from Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington. "Special" starring Michael Rapaport and "Right At Your Door," both picked up for U.S. distribution; and "The Science of Sleep," a hilarious English/French/Spanish creation from Michel Gondry who also directed the commercial hit "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." If you're lucky enough to live in a market where these small films play, they are certainly worth a look, and there is science embedded in each.
"Science is a way of understanding nature," said Doran Weber from the New York-based foundation. "The Disney-fication of nature is dangerous." The Sloan Award aims to encourage the telling of stimulating stories about real scientists – portrayals of people involved in engineering, math or technology. The foundation funds programs at six university film schools and several other film festivals. "Our capital is ideas," Weber said. "The public is not stupid; they want intelligent [films], not being talked down to, but entertaining."
Along with the annual award at the festival, this year Sloan also announced an ongoing competition for scripts incorporating science. Winning submissions receive a significant monetary grant to begin production and are assigned a science adviser.
Moviemakers have the advantage of time and potential reward over those who toil in the fields of daily reporting, but for these mostly young, first-time writers and directors, the risks seem greater and an audience less certain. Telling important stories, regardless of medium, requires talent, persistence and, sometimes, just plain good luck. "Film is the medium through which you experience ultimate reality," one young filmmaker told the panel of scientists.
Along with the three documentaries already mentioned, soon arriving on your television screen or at your local theatre from this year's Sundance festival: "An Unreasonable Man" (www.anunreasonableman.com), an attempt to redeem the life of Ralph Nader; "The Hawk is Dying" starring Paul Giamatti as a Florida cracker obsessed with falconry; and "The Darwin Awards" starring Winona Ryder and Joseph Fiennes in a hilarious escapade through risk-taking, based on the annual awards named after the evolutionary theorist. The filmmaker's thesis: some folks just need to be culled from the herd.
A front-page story in The New York Times during the festival (Jan. 21, Michael Janofsky byline) was headlined "1 Indicted in Cases of Environmental Sabotage." Sounds like the basis for a future indie film. And surely, in the wake of "March of the Penguins," Marla Cone's powerful book "Silent Snow" will compel a story of vanishing polar bears but with no fear of referencing global warming.
In 1994, SEJ held its annual conference at Sundance. Redford shared his mountain resort with us and thanked attendees for their reporting. The two cultures – journalism and filmmaking – obviously share topics, communication skills, audiences and more.
Find more at www.sundance.org.
JoAnn M. Valenti is emerita professor at Brigham Young University and a member of the SEJ editorial board. Contact her at email@example.com for more about Sundance or to hear her story about dropping nine days of notes down the toilet .
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006