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Another Side of Sundance

Documentary filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski falls into a corner window booth in the coffee shop of Park City’s Yarrow Hotel -- one of the hubs of activity at this year‘s Sundance Film Festival -- and, ignoring the tape recorder set before him, becomes wistfully transfixed by the snow softly falling outside. It’s Thursday afternoon, a full week into America‘s most important film festival, and the meeting DuBowski has just come from has obviously taken a toll, rendering him at once exhilarated and emotionally drained. From the way he stares out the window, it’s clear that he‘s using our interview as a rare midfest opportunity to catch his breath and reflect as well as to promote his film, Trembling Before G-d, screening in the documentary competition. “It’s been a total whirlwind,” he says. “It‘s been like a dream.”

An artfully crafted and wrenching portrait of Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians struggling to find their place within a community that vehemently rejects them and their spiritual commitment, Trembling began garnering its share of positive word of mouth -- i.e., “buzz” -- right from its first screening at noon on Saturday. DuBowski’s just-concluded meeting, however, wasn‘t with a distributor, a network, an agent, a publicist or any combination thereof.

In fact, for many of the 30 or so people who came to participate in the same meeting in the hotel’s Mountain View conference room, it had little to do with the art or industry of filmmaking. Titled “Old New Queer Faith: A Mormon-Jewish Gay Dialogue,” it was an interfaith gathering inspired by DuBowski‘s film and organized in part by a recently formed nonprofit called Working Films, which connects documentarians and their work with grassroots community organizations and activists.

After hearing the heartbreaking stories and confessions that came out during the one-and-a-half-hour event, DuBowski says, it didn’t matter as much that Trembling had yet to find theatrical distribution or land a U.S. broadcast deal. He‘s confident that his film will eventually reach the marketplace -- he was taking those kinds of meetings too -- but in the interfaith dialogue DuBowski had already found a way to use the stature of Sundance to begin, as he puts it, “moving the film in the world with meaning.”

For much of Sundance 2001, the biggest story was whether any films were going to move at all. With no one film emerging from among the decidedly -- and refreshingly -- noncommercial offerings in the dramatic competition with the kind of critical heat that generates big sales, the market side of the festival remained in a relative slump until well past the midway point. As 25-year-old director Richard Kelley described his experience with the acquisition executives who came calling after the buzz around his debut feature, Donnie Darko, rose and broke within the first few days of the fest, “It’s like they all went back to poker-face school.”

If industrywide caution came to mark this year‘s festival, the efforts of DuBowski, along with Daniel West and Judith Helfand, the co-founders of Working Films, brought to Sundance a new kind of high-stakes positioning, one that dared to venture beyond the festival’s crucible of hype and commerce to connect with the community that surrounds it. In addition to their work with DuBowski, West and Helfand pulled off what was easily the biggest coup of the festival -- outside of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize being awarded to director Henry Bean‘s intense and controversial The Believer -- by getting another Sundance doc, Beverly Peterson’s Invisible Revolution, screened at the Utah statehouse. A raw look inside the street-fighting world of anti-racist skinheads and young neo-Nazis, Invisible was shown to legislators, their staffs and an array of citizens groups on Wednesday, just before the senators were set to vote on a new hate-crimes bill.

“This is probably the only time that a filmmaker at Sundance has been more concerned about a vote in the statehouse than the vote of a jury panel,” said West, who also curates the Charlotte, North Carolina, Film and Video Festival. (Helfand is a documentary filmmaker whose A Healthy Baby Girl screened at Sundance in 1997.) “We‘re all now totally hyped that the power of documentary film and the prestige of Sundance have the potential to influence what might become legislation that will always be in place.”

The “power of documentary film” aside, West, Helfand and Peterson acknowledge that it was ultimately the “prestige of Sundance” that made the unprecedented screening possible. Which is exactly what they were counting on.

Founded in February of last year, Working Films began collaborating with DuBowski and Peterson well before their respective films were accepted by the festival, organizing work-in-progress screenings for relevant community groups and providing a forum for feedback. When word came that the films got in, West and Helfand immediately began searching for ways to exploit the festival’s reputation in the name of social and political action.

“The first thing we asked ourselves is, where is Sundance?” says West. “It‘s in Utah, so let’s pay attention to Utah and figure out what we need to do with these films while we‘re there. Let’s see how we can use these films to leverage some attention on [local issues].” In bringing the idea of an Invisible Revolution screening to the office of state Senator Pete Suazo, co-sponsor of the still-pending hate-crimes legislation, West and Helfand pitched it in tantalizing terms as “a premiere before the premiere at Sundance.”

The cynical question, of course, and one that begs to be asked given the context of Sundance, is whether Working Films, despite its intentions, is simply providing filmmakers another opportunity to market their work. It‘s a question West tackles head-on. “We are marketing these films,” he says. “But it’s meaningful marketing. We‘re not publicists who are saying the way to get attention is to do something different, so let’s do grassroots organizing. We‘re committed to working with both these films for the long haul.”

In keeping with that commitment, Working Films will be bringing Invisible Revolution to Tufts University for a screening as well as orchestrating a tour of Southern Christian seminaries for DuBowski’s Trembling Before G-d. As to whether the statehouse screening helped Peterson find distribution for her film, the filmmaker remains unconcerned.

“I really don‘t know if it’s going to sell, and I don‘t really give a shit at this moment,” says Peterson. “This is the first Sundance I’ve been to, and I know that there‘s a whole other festival going on with all the glitz and hype that I am not really a part of. I’m thrilled to be here, but I just wanted to get the voices of the kids I filmed heard. Once we went to the statehouse, that was the festival for me.”