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Sundance Festival

New York City, a Main Character

More than a dozen entries are set in the city, but how Sept. 11 affects the films' meaning is a debate.

January 11, 2002|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — There's a documentary in competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival, titled "Sister Helen," that features a 69-year-old Benedictine nun who epitomizes everything many non-New Yorkers feel about New York. Sister Helen runs a residence for substance abusers in the worst part of the Bronx, and she's crusty, sarcastic, overbearing, foul-mouthed and generally not interested in social niceties. She's the spiritual equivalent of the classic New York cabdriver.

But there's another side to Sister Helen. She's a survivor and, beneath that battle-ax exterior, a pushover. She tosses and turns one night when the Major, one of her longtime tenants, tests positive for an opiate. She breaks her own no-tolerance policy again and again for a lovable but backsliding alcoholic. Arguably, this is the side of New Yorkers and the city--the firemen in tears, the spontaneous street memorials--that the rest of the country saw in the wake of Sept. 11.

"People have warmed up to New Yorkers," says "Sister Helen" co-director Rob Fruchtman. "After Sept. 11, they see the character behind the hard facade. This [Sister Helen] is a woman who appears to be tough but who's caring underneath."

Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, who directed "Face," a feature film in competition at Sundance about several generations of Chinese American women, set in Queens and Manhattan, says, "I think there is a nostalgia or a special sentimentalism toward New York City that maybe used to be more cynical."

Of course, as "Face" makes clear, there are millions of New Yorkers unlike Sister Helen, and they too are on display this year at Sundance. More than a dozen festival films are set in the city, all filmed before Sept. 11, and as such they document a place that no longer exists, or at least is altered irrevocably. The filmmakers are aware of this but divided about what it may mean for their movies.

According to festival artistic director Geoffrey Gilmore, who thinks there are more New York-based films here than usual, there's something almost post-Sept. 11 about these films--meaning serious, not frivolous or self-absorbed. The attacks are on a continuum of disturbing news that filmmakers were already responding to, Gilmore believes.

"To me the issue goes back further than Sept. 11," he says. "I think particularly at the end of the '90s you had very self-centered, self-assured filmmakers whose work felt like navel-gazing. With their material life assured, there wasn't the anxiety. The anxiety didn't start over the last couple of months but with the millennium, the elections and the disintegrating economy. And then the catastrophic events of the last couple of months. These films are exploring the real world."

Sometimes the real world can overwhelm the cinematic world. Most filmmakers kept in their shots of the World Trade Center and lived with the consequences--one of them being that the images would take the viewer out of the movie. Frank Whaley, who directed "The Jimmy Show," set primarily in New Jersey, was an exception. He cut the towers out of a scene because, however poignant, it was distracting.

For Bart Freundlich, whose "World Traveler" is bookended by New York, the city is his protagonist's home, and his concern before Sept. 11 was that non-New Yorkers would have a hard time thinking of it that way. Now, he says, it feels "like people's connection to New York has strengthened and a lot of people might not have related to New York as a home and now they can. You inevitably bring something to the table, and it only enhances people's connection to the movie."

Freundlich's shot of the towers is especially problematic because it's aerial, crossing over the Statue of Liberty and then approaching lower Manhattan--in other words, a flight path. Rather than alarming, however, he finds it consoling, at least within the context of the story, which is a tale of reconciliation.

The same holds true, in a different way, for Anthony Jaswinski's "Killing Time," about the odyssey of an architecture student who journeys uptown for a job interview. New York's buildings are a character in this film, which makes the appearance of the trade center analogous to a much-beloved actor in a film who died before it was released. Jaswinski says his film, which was intended to be comedic, may not strike viewers as funny now. He found himself in the editing room trading resonance for humor.

"I have a feeling people are going to look at [the shots of the towers] as a metaphor for what happened," Jaswinski says. "I have no choice but to be OK with that. It's a poetic swan song to the city."

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