Nina Menkes remembers her first Sundance Film Festival experience as the kind most filmmakers would consider a nightmare. It was 1991, and Menkes’ feature Queen of Diamonds was being featured in the dramatic competition. “I had the usual split audience reaction to my work,” Menkes recalls from her offices in California. “The people who were more into cinema as an art form â€¦ tended to love the film. On the other hand, there were a lot of walkouts. Those who relate to film primarily as a form of entertainment just left the screening.” Such is the life of an experimental filmmaker'one where even a film-festival audience can be harsh and unforgiving.nn
Yet, over the course of the ensuing 15 years, Menkes has seen a shift in the way the Sundance Film Festival programs work that doesn’t fit into traditional narrative parameters. In 1996, the first year in which Sundance established a separate “Frontier” category for more experimental work, Menkes returned to Park City with her feature The Bloody Child. And, while she acknowledges that some people could see the creation of a distinct category as taking unique work and “ghettoizing [it] into the experimental closet,” her experience was that Sundance had taken the right approach.nn
“The people who went [to The Bloody Child] knew what to expect” from the placement in the Frontier category, Menkes believes. “With Queen of Diamonds, I had a lot of walkouts, and I didn’t have that in 1996.nn
That attempt to give experimental work a distinct forum in which to thrive continues in 2007 with the creation of an entirely new venue. In conjunction with the re-dubbing of the Frontier film program as “New Frontier,” Sundance has established a new venue, New Frontier on Main, that features installation and site-specific film and video projects (see sidebar, p. 44). It’s an attempt to keep up with an evolution in the realm of experimental film and video that’s partly connected to technological change and partly connected to a blurring of the lines between the cinema world and the visual arts world. While visitors and the film media continue to focus their attention on where the “next big thing” is coming from, Sundance continues to fight the perception that genuinely risk-taking work doesn’t have a home there.A Programming Experimentnn
A Programming Experiment
ttThe impetus for the expanded New Frontier, according to Sundance senior programmer Shari Frilot, came out of a symposium at the 2006 festival that kicked long-simmering ideas into gear. “[Sundance festival Director Geoff Gilmore] and I had been talking for a while about the need for Sundance to develop more strongly and more muscularly an alternative programming that incorporated an underground aesthetic,” said Frilot. “It dawned on us â€¦ that this was a direction we should start really pointing our guns.nn
Yet Frilot also contends that the popular notion that Sundance had not already been showcasing challenging, genre-busting work is less about reality than it is about the way the festival is presented to the world by the media. “There is a certain attention to celebrity in the way the press tends to cover the premieres and films that are more commercially oriented,” said Frilot. “And therein lies the real heart of the problem. What we do, and what our mission is, doesn’t really translate into what people learn about us unless you come to the festival yourself. Our own ink is upstaged by the ink we generate.nn
Indeed, outside observers who champion experimental film see Sundance’s history with that kind of work as uneven. Michael Sicinski, a visiting lecturer in film studies at Syracuse University and a regular contributor to Cineaste and CinemaScope, notes that in the early years of the U.S. Film Festival (which later became Sundance), many competition films came from significant players in the experimental film world. In addition to Menkes, filmmakers like Yvonne Rainer (Privilege) and Trinh Minh-ha (Shoot for the Contents) brought premieres to the festival in the late 1980s and early 1990s; there was another period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when James Benning and Su Friedrich made appearances. “It seemed like there was more of a space for hardcore experimental cinema,” Sicinski says. “But it seems like the commitment has been sporadic at best. â€¦ Probably, experimental filmmakers would still look at [Sundance] with a little bit of suspicion that it’s not the most avant-garde-friendly.nn
While Sicinski agrees that the expanded New Frontier section is “promising,” he sees Sundance’s progress as in some ways trailing behind the curve of other major film festivals. He names Rotterdam in particular'a festival that begins every year just as Sundance is ending'as having “put itself on the map with this sort of expanded cinema idea.” And the Toronto International Film Festival, he adds, began actively reaching out to experimental filmmakers five or six years ago.nn
Yet he also acknowledges that programming such content can be a challenge even for festivals that genuinely want to do so. “Submitting to festivals is typically not how most avant-garde filmmakers come to prominence,” says Sicinski. “Their work is not submitted, either as sort of a mark of purity or because it’s not their career goal” to find theatrical distribution.nn
But as Sicinski sees it, the theater itself may not be the future of experimental filmmaking: “We’re going to have to re-think what a â€˜film’ is, and what a â€˜release’ is.
ttThe whole notion of how to define “experimental film” has become part of the problem and part of what the New Frontier on Main venue is attempting to address. Over the past decade, the realm of experimental filmmaking has begun to overlap with the world of the visual arts, most notably in the works of Matthew Barney (whose Cremaster 3 showed at Sundance in 2003). Galleries have become a place to showcase moving-image work. Notes Sundance’s Frilot, “We started to realize that this is a pretty significant thing, that there’s an independent film movement coming out of the art world. It’s a pretty significant and important trend to try to keep abreast of.
Adds Sicinski, “Older and more established avant-garde filmmakers are looking to the gallery world as a new set of parameters to explore. What Sundance is doing [with New Frontier on Main] is a particular node in that shift.
Part of the incentive for this movement, Sicinski notes, is financial. The gallery world and installation pieces have proven to be a more lucrative forum for artists seeking to make a living at their art. Filmmakers like Barney and Sharon Lockhart (Pine Flat), according to Sicinski, take advantage of their gallery work to subsidize most of their film work. Adds Nina Menkes, “Barney has been able to commodify his films into art pieces. You can have a DVD [of one of his films], but there are only 100 of them.nn
Advances in digital technology have also expanded the boundaries of experimental filmmaking, both on the production end and on the distribution end. Filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson'whose Strange Culture will play in this year’s New Frontier section and whose earlier films including Conceiving Ada and Teknolust played in past festivals'began her more than 40 years as an artist in the media of sculpture, photography and performance pieces. Yet, she saw the rise of digital culture as an opportunity for brand-new kinds of exploration into multimedia and nonlinear narrative. “With new technology,” says Hershman Leeson, “it had no history, and I found that really exciting â€¦ You can shape its future. I really loved the idea of working with technology as it was being made and, in some ways, even contributing to the making of that technology.nn
Digital distribution technologies have also made it easier than ever before for film enthusiasts to access less commercial works. Where, once upon a time, you could find experimental films only at select theaters in large metropolitan areas, the Internet and DVD have made it possible for people anywhere to engage with these works. Sicinski notes that filmmaker Jonas Mekas recently launched a Website promising a new short film'downloadable to iPods'every day for the year 2007. Jonathan Rosenbaum, longtime film critic for the Chicago Reader and author of Movie Wars, points to how the first major DVD release of works by experimental film pioneer Stan Brakhage immediately sold out and to the broad availability of works by many artists. “Many people don’t realize,” says Rosenbaum, “that they can go to Radio Shack and get a multiregion DVD player and have access to most of the films in the world. The main problem for people now isn’t lack of access; it’s not knowing what’s out there.nn
Yet with these new venues for watching movies has come a change in the way people experience them. Sicinski observes that while a spectator may come to a gallery installation for a film “perhaps primed for a more challenging experience,” there’s a flip side to the level of attentiveness that can be expected. “I know from my own experience,” says Sicinski, “that if I’m seeing a video loop or something projected on a gallery wall, I’m free to pay as much attention as I care to. In a theater, you’re supposed to settle into a seat.
The “A” Word
ttPeople do continue to go to theaters to see works like those showcased in Sundance’s New Frontier section'but the audience is a select one. Even among the kind of people who attend film festivals, there continues to be a more extreme resistance to challenging works in film'and even to the mere idea that film is “Art.” “People panic when there’s no clear narrative,” says Nina Menkes. “Why can’t you sit there and watch something that has a slightly different way of putting narrative together? Why is it so scary? I don’t know where that comes from.
Lynn Hershman Leeson believes that an audience’s expectations of what a movie should be'an expectation honed by 100 years of pop-culture filmmaking'play a significant role in that kind of reaction. “You’re hitting against a tradition and that tradition is storytelling,” she says. “People are jarred when somebody tells a story in a different way. When the train was shown in the theater [in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery], they ran out of their chairs. It’s a matter of not understanding that language yet.
Rosenbaum is perhaps more direct: “There’s a real hatred of art in the United States. People who go to movies to think less than they already do are bound to be less interested in experimental film.nn
Frilot admits to “shaking in [her] boots, wondering how many people would show up” to New Frontier on Main, yet also understands that the works these filmmakers do almost ask for a more limited audience. When you push against convention, it’s inevitable that convention is going to push back. “These films on one level are a sincere effort at experimentation,” Frilot says, “but they also engage an oppositional attitude.nn
Yet she remains cautiously optimistic that audiences are becoming increasingly receptive to the kind of films shown in the New Frontier section. Kelly Reichardt’s meditative Old Joy, from the 2006 Frontier section, received a theatrical distribution last year, something Frilot doesn’t believe would have happened five or 10 years ago. As the boundaries continue to shift, even the vocabulary becomes hard to agree upon. “I think â€˜experimental’ today is what â€˜independent’ was in the 1980s,” says Frilot. “These films are completely updating the term. Sometimes I wonder if they need a new term altogether just so people can talk about them.nn
With Sundance focusing this much attention on New Frontier, the hope remains that people will be talking about them.