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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2004: The Show and The Sideshow
by Susan Royal

If you can’t beat it, organize it. The good news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was that the sideshow had been contained. Yes there were more corporate promoters, unofficial events and stars unabashedly selling their souls for swag than ever before. But it didn’t really get in the way, as it had last year when traffic jams created by the completely unnecessary presence of such non-independent actors as J-Lo made many moviegoers and journalists late for screenings. Hats off to the festival organizers and staff for figuring out how to incorporate this outside nonsense and run Sundance on two separate tracks – the festival and the circus. You can go to Park City and partake of the wonderful films and filmmakers or spend your days inside the impromptu merchandise showrooms billed as “lounges.” Your choice; your life.

The attendance at Sundance 2004 was the highest ever (an estimated 38,000 people) and will be remembered for several firsts: The first opening night in Park City instead of Salt Lake City, the strongest-ever representation of first-time African-American filmmakers, the first time a documentary (Riding Giants) opened the festival, and a wave of politically charged, post-911 films.

Sundance continues to spotlight and champion the documentary film and is the only major film festival in which documentaries compete with features. Another first came in the form of the new Audience Award for Best Documentary which was given to Born Into Brothels, a film by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski. There were over 40 documentaries at Sundance – besides the 16 in the documentary competition section and the nine in the World Documentary section, the rest were shown in special screenings, Frontier section, Native Forum and in the American Spectrum section. Topics were as diverse as the national Scrabble competition (Word Wars) and violence against women and children (Until the Violence Stops). The World Cinema Documentary Audience Award was presented to The Corporation, directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. The irony of winning this award at a festival besieged by corporate logos did not go unmentioned by the filmmakers when they accepted their award. Presenter John Cameron Mitchell, star and director of former award-winning film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, responded that he was thankful in a country where there is little government support of the arts, filmmakers can turn to corporations to finance their projects. (See complete list of awards below.)

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