Thom Powers uncovers a little bit of India at the 21st Sundance
Out Mumbai, Feb 11-24, 2005
When Sesh Kannan made his first trip to the Sundance Film Festival
13 years ago, he had no connections to the film industry. He just
wanted to watch movies. Raised in Mumbai, Kannan was then pursuing
a globetrotting career as a geologist. The US festival, held every
January in the western ski town of Park City, Utah, was just a diversion.
On January 20 this year, the 38-year-old Kannan returned to Park
City for the opening of the ten-day festival. Only this time, he
came as a director with his own film.
Sundance, now in its 21st year, was founded by Robert Redford, who
rose to Hollywood stardom with the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid. During the 1980s and ‘90s the festival earned
a reputation for launching the directorial debuts of Steven Soderbergh,
Quentin Tarantino and many others. Today, the festival is alternately
hailed for enshrining independent film and derided for becoming
too commercial. Peter Biskind explored the duality in his 2004 book,
Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent
But love Sundance or hate it, filmmakers can’t ignore it.
Like thousands of others, Kannan was emboldened by the Sundance
mystique to try independent filmmaking for himself. He fared better
than most. To give some idea of the odds, this year Sundance received
submissions for 2,613 feature films to vie for only 120 slots. Kannan’s
project Beyond the Fire combines three trends that have grown increasingly
prominent at Sundance: documentary, new technology and world cinema.
Designed for the Internet, Beyond the Fire profiles teenage refugees
who have relocated to the United States from seven war zones including
Iraq, Afghanistan, and Liberia.
The inspiration to explore immigrant communities came from Kannan’s
experience working as a geologist in South America and Africa. “I
kept seeing expat Indians who carried cultural affiliations from
the time they left India,” he told Time Out. “They were
practicing traditions in Kenya or Bolivia or Nevada that weren’t
familiar to me. It was a snapshot of the India they left a generation
or two generations ago.”
Fortunately, to see Kannan’s work, you don’t need a
ticket to Utah, only a high-speed Internet connection. Beyond the
Fire continues to be showcased online at www.sundance.org under
the “Frontier” section for experimental work. It can
also be viewed directly at www.beyondthefire.net.
Midway through Sundance on January 25, the festival’s power
to catapult a documentary to success was made apparent when nominations
were announced for the Academy Awards. (The award ceremony takes
place on February 27). Three of the five documentary candidates
had premiered in Park City. One of them, Born Into Brothels, follows
kids in Calcutta’s red light district who flourish when a
visiting photographer Zana Briski teaches them how take pictures.
Directed by New Yorkers Briski and Ross Kauffman, Brothels won the
Sundance Audience Award in 2004 and spawned an organization to spread
its mission of educating underprivileged kids (see www.kids-with-cameras.org).
Currently, the directors are holding back distributing the film
in India, Kauffman explained in an e-mail, because they don't want
to bring unwanted attention to the women and the children who are
depicted. When the Oscar nominations were announced, the directors
were visiting their subjects in Kolkata. A year ago they were unknowns,
deep in credit card debt. How does it feel to have come this far?
They summed it up in a press statement, “We are pleasantly
(Thom Powers is the co-owner of the New York-based production company
Sugar Pictures. He’s currently writing a history of American
documentary called Stranger Than Fiction.)