My Life as a Juror: 2003 Sundance Film Festival

In January 2003, I spent ten blissful days at Park City as a jury member of the Sundance Film Festival, the Mecca for new American independent movies, or indies as they're known in the industry. Next to Cannes, Sundance, which is headed by Robert Redford, is the most important festival in the world. Along with American indies, the festival shows documentaries, foreign and American, and a large sidebar, World Cinema.

By my estimate, over the past 15 years, I have served on the juries of 41 festivals, most of which international, such as Locarno, Venice, Taormina, and Montreal, while others American, like Seattle, Dallas, Hawaii. Most of these experiences have been interesting, to say the least. Yet one festival jury holds a special place in my growing resume: Sundance.

By 2003, I have covered Sundance for twelve consecutive years, first as critic for Variety, then as chief critic for Screen International. But I haven't served on its jury. The opportunity to be a juror couldn't have been timelier since I was working on a second edition of my book, “Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film.”

As a prime showcase for American indies, the festival celebrates new talent and is known for its dedication to filmmakers, rather than stars. Ever since the discovery of Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, in 1989, Park City has become an alluring site for Hollywood agents scouring the noted ski resort for hot yet cheap talent

The Dramatic Competition Jury, of which I was a member, consisted of the eccentric British actress Tilda Swinton (“Orlando,” “The Deep End”), actor-director Steve Buscemi (“Fargo,” “Ghost World”), director David O. Russell (“Flirting with Disaster,” “Three Kings”), and Forest Whitaker, known for his audacious acting roles (“The Crying Game,” “Ghost Dog”) as well as directorial efforts, the most commercially successful of which is “Waiting to Exhale.” At the first day, festival director Geoffrey Gillman said to me, “You have very strong opinions, and some of the other jurors have too. I hope youll get along.”

I was determined to prove him wrong. Indeed, in 15 years of serving on juries, I don't recall such joy of exchanging opinions, such uniformity of tastes, such respect for divergent sensibilities. It's often tough for critics to socialize with directors and actors whose work they have reviewed, particularly if the reviews have not been positive, particularly in the small, almost incestuous indie milieu.

My biggest frustration concerned our “vow of silence,” namely, the promise not to talk to any journalist, distributor, or director about our responses before the awards ceremony. Apparently, the festival had some bad experience with jurors who talked too much, leaks from preliminary deliberations, juror whose opinions were taken out of context. This was an almost impossible task since one of the pleasures of seeing movies at their world premiere is discussing their merits and flaws right away with friends and colleagues.

Defying norms, our jury decided not to have any formal meetings during the festival, but to hold one big debate at the end, on Friday night over dinner and drinks. (By the way, alcohol is a problem in Utah, the Mormons' capital; there's only one liquor store in Park City). Of course, sharing rides to the various venues where the entries played enabled us to exchange opinions on a one-to-one basis, but we had to do it quietly lest our drivers become witnesses.

With more extensive jury experience than my colleagues, I suggested to first eliminate movies that none of us cared about, movies that weren't “award-material.” In my professorial way, I proceeded to read the titles from 3X5 cards, a habit I have adopted as graduate student at Columbia. The first cut left us with seven films that we liked, for one reason or another.

I then proposed that we ranked the three strongest movies in competition. To our utmost surprise, since we come from different backgrounds, our top choices were exactly the same: “American Splendor,” “The Station Agent,” and “Thirteen.” There was further consensus that, of these pictures, Shari Springer Roman and Robert Pulcini's “American Splendor” was superior. An edgy, original movie, it not only promoted the cause of indie cinema but also illuminated its raison d'etre.

It's often said, that the documentaries are more reliable than the features at Sundance, and it's often true. However, in 2003, the best features either concerned real-life individuals or borrowed conventions from non-fiction cinema. This was certainly the case of “American Splendor,” made by HBO Films and distributed by Fine Line, a magnificent tale that interweaves comic books and actual actors, real and reel life, animation and live cinematography.

This blend of styles and conventions results in a most touching story set in a blue-collar milieu (a novelty in its own right, since most American movies are about the upper-middle class) and revolving around Harvey Pekar in all his gloom, grime, and longing. Paul Giamatti (who established a name a year later with the serio-comedy “Sideways”) gave a brilliant performance as Pekar, a loser who rescues himself through comic art. The film also features a darkly humorous portrait of Pekar's courtship and marriage to wife Joyce (Hope Davis).

The only film to receive two awards that year was Tom McCarthy's “The Station Agent, an engaging fable that Miramax picked up for distribution after a buzz and standing ovation at its first showing. Winner the Audience Award (a good indicator of how the film will play at the box-office, it received our jury's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Prize. Station Agent is a charming fable centering on three misfits: a lonely dwarf, an angry divorcee who's now a painter, and a Latino hotdog vendor with a chip on his shoulder, each needing to overcome personal and social isolation. Indeed, gradually, the trio learns the true meaning of friendship and community in the most unlikely place, an abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey.

“Thirteen,” our third honored film, with Best Director, was helmed and co-written by Catherine Hardwicke with Nikki Reed, a teenager who appears in the film. It's is a coming of age story of a girl, who's a product of a broken family in Venice, California, trying to belong to her school's inner group at any cost. Hardwicke examines a subculture rarely seen with such honesty on American screens, one in which impressionable girls drift under group pressure into drugs, piercing, self-mutilation, anorexia, and shoplifting.

Our jury deliberations broke records in terms of duration, lasting a little over an hour. Next door, in another restaurant, the Documentary Jury locked horns and deliberated for five hours until it reached a majority conclusion.

Speaking of majorities, it's rare for a festival jury to base all of its decisions on consensus. In 2001, serving on the Contemporary Cinema Jury at the Venice Festival, when we got to final ballot, four of us were in favor of one movie, and one against. As it happened, the fifth member, a noted Japanese critic, who disliked the film, was our president, though he behaved as a gentleman and respected our choice.

A Modest Proposal for the Ingredients of a Rewarding Festival Jury:

1. Make sure that the number of jurors is odd: 5, 7, 9. I have served on two juries, including Cannes Festival, in which there was an even number, and sure enough, the first round resulted in a deadlock of 5 against 5.

2. It's important to see the films at their first showings; every film at Sundance is shown six times. People talk about movies and you can't be completely immune or oblivious to what they say, particularly when you are in a small town like Park City and in a restaurant or restroom. Once, going to the restroom during a screening to take Advil, the director rushed after me, demanding to know why I am walking out; I had to show him the pills in my hand.

3. It helps to have a friend during the festival, preferably a fellow-juror. You spend a lot of time together, and there are delays, due to technical problems, and there's plenty of time to kill between screenings–good company is crucial. Good company is crucial: Last year, at the Hawaii festival, I served on the jury with international star Maggie Cheung (“In the Mood for Love,” “Hero”) and Aussie David Wenham (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and we had a blast; were still friends.

4. Good food and drinks count too. This was the one element missing from my otherwise great Sundance experience. In contrast, being in Venice was fantastic, attending all the good restaurants in Lido, where the festival takes place, and in Venice, which is 20 minute by boat. Being a juror almost guarantees a good table at a cool restaurant, and there are not many of those in any city, let alone Park City.

5. Flexibility is an essential rule of the game, though there different kinds of compromises. What often happens in juries is that lack of agreement results in choosing a weak film simply because no one cares strongly enough to speak in favor or against it.

6. Ties should be avoided at all costs. No one likes them, neither the festival organizers, nor the winners. For one thing, established festivals, such as Locarno, offers cash prizes that amount to over $20,000, a huge sum for struggling filmmakers.

What's next Well, Im waiting for an invitation to serve on my 42nd jury, preferably from a festival in an exotic place like Pusan or Bangkok. To paraphrase Sir Alec Guinness' 1979 speech, when he won an Honorary Oscar: “Im grabbing this while the going's good.”

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