Out of the Glare of Sundance


“Buzz,” Robert Redford said, “is not what it’s cracked up to be: Ignore the buzz.” Now he tells us. The occasion for Mr. Redford’s exhortation was an “intimate” brunch for nearly 100 filmmakers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The only problem was that as far as I could tell, buzz had become the singular preoccupation for most of those assembled.

Five weeks before, I was notified that my film, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, had been accepted as one of 16 in the documentary competition. Almost immediately, the buzz about buzz began—what it is, how you get it, and how you hold on to it. It was distressing: I’d never been to Sundance before, and now it seemed my whole experience would hinge on whether I could create this ephemeral currency. Creating it, I was told, was exactly what I’d have to do. It was not enough simply to let the film speak for itself; no, for buzz to be truly effective, I had to somehow manufacture it out of thin air, before anyone had even seen the film. I heard lots of advice about how to do that, from “hire a publicist” (usually proffered by publicists themselves) to “bring a staple gun and lots of posters.” It all seemed like so much work! Besides, what chance did my little film about a series of rape trials more than six decades old have of creating serious buzz, much less landing the holy grail: a theatrical deal. I resolved to stay above the fray and go skiing.

I needn’t have worried, for Sundance is in fact two film festivals.

For feature filmmakers, it is virtually impossible to “ignore the buzz.” There are shocking amounts of money floating around Park City, and getting a distribution deal seems to be the only satisfactory outcome. But for the documentary filmmakers, just being there is quite sufficient. For many of us, who labor much of our careers in the literal and metaphorical darkness of small editing rooms, it is a rare thrill to show our films on big screens in front of large audiences. This year, the documentaries in the competition were incredibly strong, even inspiring. It was hard not to root for Marc Singer, the young Brit who had gone underground to live among homeless people in the tunnels under New York for Dark Days; or James Ronald Whitney, who had pried the lid off a series of shocking family secrets in Just, Melvin; or Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson, who, for Well-Founded Fear, had somehow managed to worm their way into the INS and eavesdrop on the fascinating hearings for asylum seekers. Whatever buzz there was in the documentary section was quickly monopolized by The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a crowd-pleasing portrait of the mascaraed queen of televangelists, during which the filmmakers handed out eye shadow. That was fine with me. Scottsboro didn’t create all that much buzz, but it did play before packed houses. And I got in four days of skiing.