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Sundance Festival

A Friendlier Climate?

Despite longtime industry resistance to ethnic movies, a flurry of entries from minority filmmakers at this year's screenings signals hope for change.

January 19, 2002|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARK CITY, Utah — Among its many functions, the Sundance Film Festival is in the business of hope. And one segment of the filmmaking population that's sorely in need of hope is actually getting it--this is the year, or at least the moment, of the ethnic filmmaker.

According to festival artistic director Geoffrey Gilmore, 2002 is a "breakout year for Latino films."

"This is the first time that we've had more good Latino films [submitted] than we put in the festival." And there is an abundance of films by Asian Americans too, along with a couple of prominent Native Americans, although very few African Americans.

Gilmore won't speculate why this is so--he's been around too long to do that. Each year, Sundance features some sort of statistical anomaly that may or may not mean something--movies directed by women, movies starring Parker Posey (or Christina Ricci). What he can say is that this development is a good thing. Whether this good thing can overcome Hollywood's resistance to ethnic films is another matter. In other words, no matter how good they are, they might not get picked up for distribution.

The bottom line for the studios is that ethnic films--even highly touted ones--aren't proven moneymakers. Take, for example, "Girlfight," about a teenage Latina boxer (made by an Asian American, Karyn Kasama), which shared the Grand Jury Prize in 2000 but crashed at the box office. Part of the reason for such failures lies in Hollywood's inability to market such films, but the fact is the industry needs something to market--faces, names. White indie filmmakers have known this for a long time, larding their films with recognizable actors in order to secure funding and distribution. Whom does an ethnic filmmaker turn to when he wants to make a movie about his own community?

Arthur Dong, whose documentary "Family Fundamentals," about homophobia among Christian families, is in competition here, says that when an Asian American filmmaker he knows shopped his project to agents and studio executives, more than one of them said, "This is great, but you don't have any white people in it."

Lupe Ontiveros, a critically acclaimed Latina actress, has spent much of her English-speaking career playing maids. That's one reason why she jumped at the chance to play the theater manager in Miguel Arteta's "Chuck & Buck," a breakout role for her last year after playing at Sundance.

Justin Lin, whose film in competition, "Better Luck Tomorrow," is about Asian American teenagers, says that actor Jason Tobin came to him with a sample reel of his previous roles, in which he played only delivery boys.

Of course, these stereotypes are no more or less than a reflection of societal attitudes. Patricia Cardoso, a Colombian who directed "Real Women Have Curves," also in competition, about a Latina's drive for independence, says she would sometimes park her car in Bel-Air and walk to UCLA, where she was going to school. Drivers would stop and ask her what house she worked for.

Sherman Alexie, a Native American who wrote the 1999 Sundance entry "Smoke Signals" and is back this year with "The Business of Fancydancing," about the homecoming of a Native American poet, says that when he gets off a plane in a small town, people wonder what they're supposed to do with this big, long-haired Indian, as he describes himself. He says he gets the same look when he walks into a room full of studio executives.

Perhaps inevitably, the very real stereotyping faced by ethnic filmmakers encourages them (well, at least one of them) to indulge in their own stereotyping.

"I don't want to sound anti-Semitic [but] it's easier if you're Jewish," Alexie says. "Marlon Brando [who once made the same point] wasn't all that wrong. In proportion to the national population, whatever it is, it's disproportionate, it's a family business. How do you get into the family? How do you get into any tribe?"

One avenue is to make documentaries that attract what one filmmaker describes as "white guilt money" from liberal corporate and nonprofit benefactors. Few of these filmmakers would turn down this kind of money if it were offered.

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Nor are these filmmakers above using their ethnicity to aid their careers, albeit uneasily. Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, whose "Face," about several generations of Chinese American women in New York, is in competition at the festival, won a Directors Guild Award for best Asian American filmmaker. "There is attention put upon me because I'm Asian and female," she says. "If it's to my advantage, why not take advantage of it? We all have different advantages. You use whatever you can use."

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