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Documentary Fans in a Delicate Dance

HBO's factual films often appear at Sundance, but a key network player didn't--until the fest invited her this year.

February 04, 2001|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

PARK CITY, Utah — When asked why she hadn't attended the Sundance Film Festival since the days when it was known as the United States Film Festival, Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming at HBO and one of the most influential voices in documentary filmmaking, says, surprisingly, "I was never invited to Sundance. I began to feel they did not want me there. Why did they never ask me to be on a panel? How come I'm never a judge?"

This year, four of the 16 films in the documentary competition were HBO's: "Southern Comfort," which took the Grand Jury Prize; "LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton," which won an award for cinematography; "Chain Camera"; and "Children Underground." The network had a similar number of films at last year's festival. So, although Nevins may have had a weirdly distant relationship with the festival, her films have not. Year in and year out, they've been there.

"For years I resisted Sundance because it was so important to the filmmakers and I thought, why is that?" she says. "I would say, 'So what if it doesn't get into Sundance? What's Sundance?' But I must say I caught the Sundance fever. What it offers is such extraordinary visibility for the filmmakers, because who pays any attention to documentary filmmakers?"

It's not quite clear why Nevins suddenly got religion (she says she's stubborn), and festival programming chief Geoffrey Gilmore will only say, in a tone that's half-exasperated, half-amused, "So many people who know her said, 'You've got to invite Sheila this year.' I said, 'Fine, let's do it.' I have to say she's done for the most part good things. She's really given documentaries visibility, which in this country is enormously difficult."

Gilmore wryly refers to the HBO formulation as "docutainment." By this he means transgressive, or at least sensational, subject matter given sober, respectful treatment.

An example from last year's festival was "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," a campy biopic of the televangelist narrated by drag star RuPaul. This year's entries were a little tamer, although one could point to "Southern Comfort," about a female-to-male transsexual dying of ovarian cancer who is comforted by a coterie of transsexual friends, including his male-to-female lover. But in fact the film is a lot more tactful than the premise would suggest. HBO didn't originate the project but merely provided completion funds--although this is not as inconsequential as it sounds.

"I really did sense a resistance to the subject matter, and I would really like to praise HBO for understanding it and not sensationalizing it," says the film's director, Kate Davis. "Sheila told me what she really loved about it is that it wasn't a freak show."

Not everything HBO does is docutainment. Nevins wants heat as well as light, and she knows she can't have one without the other. For example, the HBO-funded "Long Night's Journey Into Day," about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, perhaps not the sexiest topic, won the Grand Jury Prize at last year's festival.

"I think you have to establish your reputation as dealing with all kinds of reality, whether it's hookers and pimps or people who are victims of the legacy of poverty," Nevins says.

"What's wonderful is that they commit this kind of money to docs," says Susan Froemke, who with cinematographer Albert Maysles made "LaLee's Kin." She calls HBO "the Medicis" of the medium, perhaps a wobbly analogy. After all, the Renaissance art patrons were not profit-minded when it came to commissions, while HBO definitely has its eye on the bottom line. Prestige and sizzle are what draw viewers to HBO, and both can always be had at Sundance. Nevins will tell you so.

In fact, with this in mind, HBO has made other inroads at Sundance. Colin Callender, president of HBO original movies, has made a concerted effort to do on the feature film side what Nevins and company have been doing on the documentary side.


HBO had two features at Sundance this year: Reggie Rock Bythewood's "Dancing in September," in the American Spectrum section, about racism in the TV industry; and Cheryl Dunye's "Stranger Inside," billed as a special presentation, about a daughter's search for her imprisoned mother. Both films represent the sort of socially conscious filmmaking the major studios and TV networks rarely attempt anymore and from which independent production companies increasingly shy away.

Chris Albrecht, the pay channel's president of original programming, says the fact that these two films are by and about African Americans is a coincidence. The larger point is that HBO sees itself as an alternative to the theatrical marketplace for independent filmmakers.

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