Yoav Potash's 'Crime After Crime' examines the post-incarceration struggle of Deborah Peagler.

Bay Area Doc Makers Breathe Deep Before Sundance Debuts

Michael Fox January 19, 2011

Of the 16 slots in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Competition, Bay Area filmmakers occupy no fewer than a quarter. For David Weissman (We Were Here), Tiffany Shlain (Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology), Yoav Potash (Crime After Crime) and Jennifer Seibel Newsom (Miss Representation), Thursday’s festival opening marks the pivotal stage of an intense adventure. We asked them and Australian filmmaker Matthew Bate, whose San Francisco-set Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure screens in the World Cinema Documentary competition, to share their strategies and wish lists.

David Weissman returns to Sundance older and wiser after making his Park City feature debut nine years ago with The Cockettes. “I feel much more grounded, more confident in both my own decision-making as well as my comfort in soliciting help and advice,” he confided. “There are certainly questions I know to ask this time around, things I know to be wary of. I know my own strengths and limitations better, which I hope will make for a much less stressful experience overall.”

A deeply moving oral history of the AIDS years in San Francisco, We Were Here screened at the Castro last summer in a packed sneak preview during Frameline. The film provokes a quite different audience response than the crowd-pleasing Cockettes, so Weissman opted not to wait for Sundance to concoct a distribution plan. After its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, We Were Here begins its theatrical run Feb. 25 at the Castro.

“I want to be open to all kinds of options up there” at Sundance, Weissman said. “I'm not going with specific expectations or goals. I'm somewhat wary of the conventional distribution models but I'm always open to the unexpected, and to someone making me an offer I can't refuse.” His strategy? “Calm. Doing the best I can with my incredible team, and knowing that if we do so, I will be accepting of whatever comes out of this. In this as in almost every part of my life, I'm very much a process-oriented person—trusting that if one engages in the process with intelligence, integrity and heart, the result will take care of itself.”

The first-person Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology marks Tiffany Shlain’s feature debut at Sundance after prior trips with the shorts Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness (2003) and The Tribe (2006). (She’s also bringing a new short this year, Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.) Like Weissman, she’s taking a bit of a Zen approach to the mountains.

“I am very conscious of trying to stay present, to enjoy the experience and not to stress out,” Shlain said. “That is my mantra: ‘Stay present.’ We have a lot of exciting things related to the launch in the coming months [including a discussion kit, educational curriculum and mobile web application]. For Sundance, we really want to focus on the screenings, getting the larger ideas in the film out there and meeting other filmmakers. I am bringing out my whole team, and some great supporters are coming, too. All of these people are very much a part of the project, and I look forward to having them in Park City to launch a global conversation about what it means to be ‘connected’ in the 21st century.”

Shlain will be meeting with distributors at Sundance, presumably, but it sounds like she’s ahead of the curve with respect to digital distribution.

“Since the beginning of Connected four years ago, we fundraised for and planned for a hybrid distribution strategy,” she explained. “We’ve done a lot of distribution experiments with our previous shorts and we’re looking forward to applying some new ones with the feature. We plan to utilize traditional distribution models (theatrical, television) along with some new ways to engage people. Hitchcock used to say a film is made three times: when you write it, when you shoot it and when you edit it. Today there’s a fourth: when you distribute it. With all the new technologies and DIY opportunities available to reach people with your project in fresh and exciting ways, you get to be just as creative when you take a film out into the world.”

Yoav Potash makes his first sojourn to Sundance as an honored guest with Crime After Crime, an exposé of a miscarriage of justice that received a grant from the Sundance Documentary Film Program. “So I have become familiar with some aspects of the many great things that the Sundance Institute has to offer, with the Sundance Film Festival being the most notorious,” he said, tongue slightly in cheek. Hoping that Crime would be accepted to the 2011 festival, Potash attended last year’s hoedown to scout the different theaters as well as places where crowds gathered. 

“You have dozens of great films all vying for attention and you want to do something to get people's attention, but you hope to do it in a way that isn't too tacky and that stays true to the spirit of your film,” Potash explained. “We're fortunate in that our main character, Debbie Peagler, leads the prison's gospel choir, so we're having a choir come and perform some of the songs that are featured in the film” the day before the January 22 premiere. “I'm hopeful this will create a buzz and attract press, industry and the general public to want to see our film. It will certainly bring a fun and moving live element to the streets of Park City.”

Potash has retained Submarine Entertainment as his North American sales agent and New York-based Murphy PR to wrangle press at Park City, freeing himself to focus on advocacy.

“One of my main goals is to use our Sundance premiere to launch a campaign that shows how the film can create real change for victims of domestic violence and wrongful incarceration,” Potash said. “ We're working with the Habeas Project and a number of great nonprofit partners in this area, and I'm hopeful that the film will inspire other states to follow California's example in passing a law that allows incarcerated survivors of domestic violence to reopen their cases. We're calling this project Debbie's Campaign.”

Potash confided that Crime After Crime will have its Bay Area premiere in the San Francisco International Film Festival.

We were unable to reach Jennifer Seibel Newsom by press time, although we did connect with Matthew Bate down under. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure revisits the bizarre ’80s saga of Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman, dissolute Lower Haight roommates whose drunken, inane bickering was captured on tape by their neighbors (including the curiously named Eddie Lee Sausage) and spread via the local underground band scene. Bate filmed all over the neighborhood last April, visiting their apartment on Steiner as well as a number of other locations. He met with members of Poopshovel as well as Dan Clowes, the graphic artist who drew the infamous duo after becoming a fan of the tapes.
“The film delves into the global phenomenon of Shut Up Little Man!, and how the tapes became known to a worldwide audience,” Bate explained. “The film shows these recordings as going ‘viral’ in a pre-Internet world via a network of underground tape traders. People would swap analogue cassettes of celebrity rants long before we all had video cameras and could witness these kinds of things visually. Shut Up Little Man! can be seen as an early warning sign of how entertainment would become ‘reality’ based and how ordinary people can become celebrities overnight, even if they don’t want to be. Anyone these days can be recorded at their worst moment, uploaded to YouTube and wake up with a million people having seen them humiliate themselves.”

Shut Up Little Man! was accepted to Sundance on the basis of a rough-cut, so the filmmakers essentially spent the last month in a manic race to finish. Bate retained press and sales agents, and plans to take a host of meetings at Sundance resulting in a distribution deal.

“We have a few marketing strategies up our sleeve and we hope to make a bit of noise while we are in Park City,” he wrote.  “I’m hoping that word of mouth does most of the work for us. After seeing the film, you can’t help but talk in SULM language and repeat many of the one-liners from Peter and Raymond. I think I say’s Ray’s classic line, ‘If you want to talk to me then shut your fu**in’ mouth,’ at least once a day!”

As Shut Up Little Man! is taking its first steps at Sundance, it’s premature to talk about its San Francisco debut. Nonetheless, Bate muses, “Given the film is about a gay man living with a rampant homophobe, I think the Castro would be the perfect place to premiere in the Bay Area.”

Notes from the Underground
Nancy Fishman
, former program director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival whose resumé includes stints at ITVS, Frameline and the San Francisco International Film Festival, has founded Nancy Fishman Film Releasing. The distribution company’s first release will be Israeli director Eytan Fox’s Mary Lou. … Columbia Pictures has set September 23 as the opening date for Moneyball, the adaptation of Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book starring Brad Pitt as Oakland As general manager Billy Beane.

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