Cuddled within the western edge of the Rocky Mountains is a cozy, snow-capped area called the Wasatch Range, which is the home of Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, considered by film buffs to be the best of the independent venues. Hollywood seems to agree.
Seen walking down Main Street, in and out of fancy boutiques, theatres and swank restaurants, are the likes of: Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Tom Arnold, Ludacris, Lisa Kudrow, Bookem Woodbine, Mos Def, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Will Smith, Joan Chen, Sofia Coppola, Amy Redford (yes, she's Robert's daughter) Rosario Dawson, Melvin Van Peebles, William Greaves, Mario Van Peebles, S. Epatha Merkerson, Macy Gray, and perhaps the hottest, most underrated, yet most popular Sundance-featured actor?#34;Terrence Howard, star of three of the most-talked about films here: "Lackawanna Blues," "The Salon" and "Hustle and Flow."
I'm here officially as a WNUA-FM 95.5 FM Chicago talk show host and wednesday journal and Bronzeville.com columnist to report on minority interest films. Another Oak Parker here at Sundance is Bruce Sheridan, chairman of Columbia College's Film Department. I'm here to learn firsthand from great film festival promoters on how best to host a two-day film festival in Oak Park this fall with my co-director, Yves Hughes Jr. And also I'm here to do focus groups and workshops on my most recent documentaries "The Promise Landers," "Diversity in Oak Park" and "Wassup East Africa," all of which were picked up by an African distributor, and are now also primed for a San Francisco-based national distributor who specializes in Black films in White schools.
I knew I'd have a successful trip because the first person I saw on the plane and I delivered a copy of "Wassup East Africa" to was Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who, after hearing the documentary was an ironic look at Black Chicagoans in Kenya, then introduced me to the head of the Illinois Film Office, Brenda Sexton, who I also dropped a rough cut on. Sexton said she was looking for African-American filmmakers from Illinois to showcase in upcoming events and when I announced I was a "cool brotha from Oak Park" whose "Diversity in Oak Park" aired last year to three million Kenyan viewers on KBC-TV, she smiled and promised to keep in touch?#34;welcome to Sundance where deals are made and hearts are broken.
On opening night, I met an Academy Award-nominee in the documentary category, Jennifer Sanders, director of HBO's post-prison portrait, "After Innocence," perhaps the hottest, most political documentary here. Next to her were some film fans from L.A. who offered me a ticket to Lisa Kudrow's comedy "Happy Endings," and I went. Its themes of sexual liberation?#34;gay and straight, Latino and White?#34;takes a wacky turn with an extended family that seems between the Marx Brothers and the Hilton Sisters. I fell asleep on parts of the midnight movie, only to awake to laughter from others who seem to like this slightly experimental film.
Another noteworthy experimental film, one already favorably reviewed in the New York Times and yet almost destined to art-house cult status, is "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2" which is a Steven Soderbergh/Steve Buscemi production directed by William Greaves, a cinematic genius some call the "godfather of the Black documentary." In this film that is not necessarily a "Black film" (whatever that is?usually defined as having Black actors, Black music, a Black narrative theme and a Black director), "Symbio" artfully combines narrative and documentary, process and product, criticism and self-criticism and in doing so is perhaps the best movie ever made on the acting process. It spans four decades and builds on a 1968 work Greaves shot and revisits 35 years later. The themes of race, sexual orientation, gender, class, method acting and primal therapy are just a few of the hot button issues.
It was an intellectual feast from the lens of a Black actor-director. Its title comes from a contemporary social scientist that studied the work of philosopher John Dewey who spoke about the environment's impact on people. "Symbio's" impact on me and a stimulating interview with Greaves were among the highlights.
My most moving experience came the next day, not so much from the screening, but from the talk afterwards. The HBO film, "Protocols of Zion" by filmmaker Marc Levin, is a provocative work that shows, despite all the evidence, millions around the world continue to blame Jews for 9/11. This belief, Levin says, is a modern-day incarnation of the infamous Protocols of Elder of Zion, the century-old forgery by the Russian czar's secret police that clamed to be the Jews' master plan to rule the world.
Levin brought his dad onstage to talk about how his father first taught him to spot hate groups. It was a moving discussion because it reminded this reporter-filmmaker how my late dad, Jerry West, Jr., did the same, and I realized how much I learned from him and how unfortunate it is that he will never share the stage at a screening with me. I mentioned this to Marc Levin, who told me he appreciated the tender moment and also my reporter-like comments that he should have included scholarly, moderate Muslim sources, and not just extremist ones, just as he included moderate and extremist Jewish and Christian sources. Levin said thanks to my comments he would use a wider range of Arab and Muslim sources in his next film.