Twenty years ago, a few filmmakers — including Dan Mirvish, Peter Baxter, and Paul Rachman — rented out a room in a Prospector Square hotel, creating the first Slamdance Film Festival.
Their motivation: "the other film festival in Park City" had perhaps lost some of its independent spirit. Over the years this "little festival that could" has continued to showcase emerging filmmakers. Some of those upstarts have achieved A-list status since their Slamdance debuts: Christopher Nolan (more on him below) and Marc Forster, for example.
Nolan was given Slamdance's inaugural Founder's Award. The acclaimed director arrived with his entire family in tow to accept the award, including wife Emma Thomas, who has been his producing partner in crime since his 1998 debut, Following.
"We've grown up together in every sense but particularly in filmmaking," Nolan said. "We began making 16mm films together and that's evolved into studio work. As a filmmaker the best thing you can possibly have is somebody close to you who can support you, but who also knows your weaknesses and your strengths and has no other agenda than to make the best film it can be and see you do the best work as a director. That's what Emma's been for me."
Nolan softly spoke about how this DIY film festival helped him and his ultra low-budget ($6,000) first feature. "What Slamdance teaches you is that while it's wonderful to have a great community of filmmakers around you, you have to be prepared to do everything yourself. That's something that never goes away. You have to be prepared to carry the flag for the film because if you're not, nobody else is going to bother."
This year's Slamdance opener was Bill Plympton's Cheatin' (US), which showcased 40,000 hand drawn pictures. Holding true to the imperfect beauty of his drawing style, Plympton used Kickstarter funds to create a genuinely surreal and delightful feature amongst a sea of VFX and CGI animated films that rule the cinematic schools these days.
The nostalgic story of a couple's relationship woes as they desperately groan and grumble through life's complications has the possibility to be Plympton's biggest crossover to date, particularly among Pixar-fan types who have recognized that cartoons aren't just for kids. French audiences seem to already be celebrating Cheatin' and you should do the same at your first opportunity.
Monja Art and Caroline Bobek's Forever Not Alone (Austria) is an hypnotic 'tween documentary that allows its subjects to speak for themselves. It throws the viewer into the thick of what it's like to be a young girl today. While it explores the trials and tribulations of being young, fun, and hopelessly in love, it also captures youth's melancholy side. The end result is not only a time capsule for its subjects, but also a haunting reminder of a time older audiences may have forgotten.
Slamdance's Jury Prize Winner also screened at the recent SF IndieFest: Fernando Frias' Rezeta (Mexico), a small, wonderful film. An Albanian (well, it's complicated) woman named Rezeta finds herself in Mexico City, bouncing around from one modeling gig to the next. As she looks for love in all the wrong places she befriends metal dude Alex, who talks to her like a human being while sporting a Neurosis hoodie. The honest conversations, difficult egocentric dilemmas, and a memorably unsentimental structure make Frias' debut feature a must-see.
But perhaps my favorite film at Slamdance this year was Paul Rachman's six-minute Zoë Rising (US) which continues his exploration into the life and death of exploitation star Zoë Tamerlis Lund, this time interviewing her mother. Her claim to fame was starring in Abel Ferrara's X-rated masterpiece Ms. 45 (1981) as well writing the original screenplay to his most critically acclaimed gem, the NC-17 Bad Lieutenant (1992). Rachman, who previously helmed the wonderful punk/no wave documentary American Hardcore (2005), has massive plans over the next couple of years to dive deeper into this character study, hoping to include interviews with Ferrara, Harvey Keitel, other of Lund's close friends and family members.
What's so unique about both short films — the first film, Zoë XO (2006), interviewed her ex-husband — is that Rachman allows the interviewees to be working on their own projects while they discuss Lund. It's reminiscent of Penelope Spheeris' interview technique in her Decline of Western Civilization films. He also experiments with sound and image, suggesting an aesthetic that feels like Richard Kern eating the montage pioneer Slavko Vorkapich. It is a rare kind of cinema and it has the possibility of blossoming into something truly special.
Speaking of short films, 2014's "other film festival in Park City" is worth revisiting one last time for its true standouts. Sundance's best short was Andre Hyland's seven-minute screwball laugh-riot Funnel (US) which follows a guy on his cell phone. Bob Odenkirk has put his name on the film which will hopefully get Hyland an entire TV series, because I could watch this dude's ramblings all day.
Janicza Bravo's Gregory Go Boom (US), starring a wheelchair-bound Michael Cera, rides a thin line towards a Todd Solondz/Harmony Korine-esque Americana, which may or may not hit the mark. Either way, this 17-minute trek most definitely is a great calling card for its young director.
Todd Rohal's Rat Pack Rat (US) won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for its "unique vision." Eddie Rouse delivers a memorable performance as a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator — and let's just say Eastbound and Down's scene-stealing Stevie (Steve Little) takes things to an oddly dark comedy zone. Like Gregory Go Boom, Rat Pack Rat may or may not hit the mark for some. But I have found myself thinking about this 18-minute short long after the festival.