PARK CITY, UTAH — By early Thursday evening, Deborah Kampmeier had arrived from New York after spending 29 straight hours putting the finishing touches on "Hounddog," perhaps the most eagerly anticipated film of this year's Sundance Film Festival. Operating on two hours of sleep, she was still smarting a bit from the criticism leveled by religious activists who had not seen her Southern gothic tale but object to the rape of the character played by 12-year-old Dakota Fanning. Mostly, though, she sounded happy to be able to share her long aborning project with the world.
"I am hoping that this film is going to touch a lot of people," she said. "When you go to a theater and you see the truth, you feel less alone in the world." As for the critics, who have tried to unleash a milder version of the opprobrium hurled at Mel Gibson before "The Passion of the Christ" came out, she has decided to turn the other cheek. "I have to say I have started to feel very sorry for these people who are out to silence this," said Kampmeier, who wrote, produced and directed the film. "These are really wounded people, just like the characters in the film."
The film is set in rural Alabama in the late 1950s. Fanning plays Lewellen, a motherless child who is obsessed with Elvis Presley and does a mean impersonation of him. Her father (David Morse) is a creepy, abusive farmer for whom Lewellen's love is so complex it borders on hatred. Her grandmother, a blowsy Piper Laurie, is an angry and suspicious woman who tosses firecrackers into her garden for pest control and is obsessed with the wickedness of the flesh.
"There's plenty of time for you to grow up and be evil," she tells Lewellen as she inspects her after a bath. "I just want you to be good while you can."
Robin Wright Penn -- does anyone do wounded vulnerability better? -- plays the woman who becomes Lewellen's ray of hope, and Afemo Omilami is the wise farm hand who nurses the damaged young women around him back to emotional health. A transformative history lesson is provided by jazz and blues singer Jill Scott as Big Mama Thornton, whose Leiber and Stoller-penned hit "Hound Dog" was a hit in 1953, then nearly forgotten after it was eclipsed by Elvis' recording. (In Kampmeier's view, another example of how women's voices have been silenced.)
As for the scene that has put this film on the map long before its premiere here on Monday, it is the powerful, and yes, disturbing, heart of the film, and delicately filmed. Like rape itself, it becomes a thing of transcendent violence, not just a physical violation. Fanning's victim is an ethereal child on the cusp of sexuality whose soul withers before your eyes.
"When we first met, I said to Dakota this is a difficult and dark world that she would have to enter into, but that I would be there with her every step of the way," said Kampmeier, 42. "It was not about manipulating her; she is a deeply talented and mature actor. To say she was violated to achieve her performance denies her talent. She moved very carefully and intelligently through the work. It was a heavy scene, but after we shot it, she was laughing and dancing because she knew what she had done was an incredible performance."
Though several groups, including the Christian Film & Television Commission, have objected to putting a child actor in that position, Kampmeier stressed that the rape was achieved in the edit, not on the set. "You have a child yelling 'Stop it!" and only when you put that next to an image of a boy unzipping his pants do you see that it's rape." Contrary to reports, there is no graphic nudity, but there are several scenes, carefully shot, where child actors with bare shoulders and legs are presumed to be naked.
There is no question that the rape scene, and a couple of others, particularly where Lewellen radiates a precocious (if unconscious) sexuality as she gyrates her hips and sings Elvis, make for uncomfortable viewing. When Kampmeier screened rough cuts for associates, she said, reaction was split along gender lines. Women saw the innocence and joy in Lewellen's gestures; men thought she was provoking a sexual attack.
Such moments are not without precedent -- at approximately Fanning's age, Brooke Shields in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby" and Jodie Foster in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" played prostitutes. Those films too were met with outrage, accusations of exploitation
Though most of the indie filmmakers here can tell hair-raising tales about how they got their films made (let alone dealing with preemptive censorship strikes), Kampmeier's story seems more harrowing than most.