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Sundance's saving grace

by Pat AufderheideThe Progressive
April 1st, 2002

One of the less likely Sundance premieres this year took place in the basement of a suburban public library outside Salt Lake City. Thirty-five people gathered to watch a tape of Blue Vinyl on the day before it opened at the festival's Salt Lake City site.

In Blue Vinyl, Judith Helfand heads off on a quest to discover the implications of her family’s choice to put vinyl siding on their home. Anyone who saw A Healthy Baby Girl already knows Helfand’s family; her first film was a personal saga about the cancer she survived as a DES daughter. Her mother took the drug DES while pregnant, which later triggered Helfand’s cancer. The film exposed the social and economic roots of individual tragedy – DES makers knew about the risks – and also showed the link between our ordinary domestic lives and large political forces. In Blue Vinyl, she and her co-director Dan Gold discover that polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pollutes and poisons at both the beginning and the end of the production process. As she shares her revelations with her family, her parents move from exasperation with her to alarmed awareness and finally participate in her struggle to find an alternative cover for their small, suburban rambler home.

Her dad was in the audience that night, wearing around his neck a souvenir of the film. Hung on Mardi Gras beads (a reminder of the New Orleans-area PVC factory where workers have sky-high cancer rates) was a square of the blue vinyl siding removed from his own house, now marked with the warning, “This is vinyl. Don’t burn it! And don’t throw it away!” and the address of the website, myhouseisyourhouse.org, where anti-toxics activists are mobilizing.

As the credits rolled, the filmmakers circulated in the audience, giving souvenirs to each viewer. The audience peppered the filmmakers with questions—all about vinyl, pollution and organizing.

“This is the moment I dreamed of when I hoped we would get the film to Sundance,” said Helfand. “It belongs in the community.” Still, the makers were happy when Dan Gold won a Sundance award for best cinematography. Welcomed to the stage, Judith clutched the slat of blue vinyl siding that she carries throughout the film.

The Sundance film festival has become the glamour spot of independent film. But at the same time, Sundance has become a critical tool for makers of social action films and a place to scout emerging projects. At its House of Docs, a lounge and conference area for documentary makers and a refuge from commercialism, you could learn about Maquilopolis, a film by and about workers in Tijuana’s assembly factories. Or you could encounter Steps for the Future, a remarkable collaboration among European producers and Southern African filmmakers to produce thirty-seven programs on HIV/AIDS.

“Sundance is the testing ground for the campaigns we commit to,” says Robert West, who co-founded Working Films with Helfand. “Because of its prestige, it can leverage our access, and it launches campaigns that become multi-year efforts.”

Working Films brought another movie to Salt Lake City this year, On Hostile Ground. The film, by Jenny Raskin, Liz Mermin, and Catherine Gund, is about abortion providers in danger. West showed it to medical students in Utah, where, as in many other states, conservative-backed legislation has dropped the requirement to learn abortion procedure, and many students don’t even realize they are opting out.

Working Films was also in Austin, Texas, this year, and the film it was showing was the publicly funded Two Towns of Jasper. This Independent Television Service documentary assesses the racial atmosphere in the town of Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr. was tortured and murdered. It was co-directed by a white director (Whitney Dow) and an African American one (Marco Williams). They each filmed separately, within their own racial group, and later edited their segments together. The result is a deeply disturbing look at entrenched cultural and racial differences, and at the blindness of white residents to the realities of African Americans in Jasper.

The Sundance lineup of documentaries was full of high energy, socially conscious, activist-friendly work this year. And by the end, you could see those Mardi Gras beads and blue vinyl squares everywhere.

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