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In the Shadow of the Stars 

Two Berkeley filmmakers win best documentary at Sundance

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
In the Shadow of the Stars "We sat there, like all of our colleagues, hating to be in competition with each other and wanting a win," says Berkeley documentary filmmaker Gail Dolgin, describing the awards ceremony at Sundance 2002. "It was a pretty intense moment. I was digging my nails into Vicente." Vicente Franco, her S.F. filmmaking partner, confirms the scene: "I still have the marks from it." The duo had been in the same nervous position nine years earlier, when Cuba Va: The Challenge of the Next Generation played Park City. This time around the outcome was a whole lot cheerier, as Daughter From Danang -- which recounts the complicated and unhappy reunion between an Amerasian girl raised in Tennessee and her Vietnamese mother, 22 years after the girl was airlifted out of Vietnam -- captured the award for best documentary.

Sundance's prize-winning dramatic films typically garner more ink, hype, and (ultimately) cash than their documentary brethren, but the award does improve Dolgin and Franco's chances of luring a distributor. "We're not holding our breath," Franco confides. "We're confident, but a theatrical release doesn't bring a lot more audience. Television and festivals are the bulk of the audience for documentaries." To its credit, Daughter From Danang went to Sundance with a 2003 berth already confirmed in PBS's "American Experience" series. However, a one-week theatrical run in L.A. or N.Y. would qualify the film for Academy Award consideration next year. In addition, every prize and high-profile nomination increases a doc filmmaker's stature with funders.

That said, fund-raising never gets easier for documentary-makers (just ask multiple-Oscar winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman). "The glory only lasts a couple of days," Franco says with a dry chuckle. Dolgin won't let the glow fade so quickly, though. "I'm just going to stay on top of this mountain and enjoy this vista as long as I can," she says. Daughter From Danang receives its Bay Area premiere in mid-March with a trio of screenings at the 20th S.F. International Asian American Film Festival.

Breakfast of Champions The Mill Valley Film Festival has joined nine other fests, ranging from Maui to Seattle to Nashville, in a promotional arrangement dubbed the U.S. Film Festivals Circuit. Each fest will give an audience award (with a cash prize put up by a brand-name sponsor, as yet to be determined); the 10 winning films will subsequently screen together in New York, where one will earn a Grand Prix.

"Every year, we talk about competitions and awards," MVFF Director of Programming Zoe Elton acknowledges. "But one of the strongest suits of Mill Valley is that it's not a competitive festival. That makes it filmmaker-friendly." Since an audience award is a popularity contest rather than a juried competition, the gentle vibe at Mill Valley (which holds its 25th soiree in October) should continue unaltered. This deal represents the first time that Mill Valley will give an audience award to a feature film.

Short Cuts East Bay writer/director Finn Taylor's Cherish (Reel World, June 6, 2001) was picked up at Sundance by Fine Line. Since a summer release is a possibility, the film's local premiere in the S.F. International Film Festival may be in the cards. ... Chuleenan Svetvilas is the new editor of Release Print, the Film Arts Foundation's monthly magazine. ... Former SFIFF programmer Doug Jones signed on for a five-month stint as a senior programmer for the upcoming L.A. Independent Film Festival. ... A word to the wise: With hordes of A-M fans flying in from New York and beyond for the Feb. 22 tribute at the Castro, "Viva Ann-Margret!" will undoubtedly sell out. Dial 863-0611 for ducats.

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Michael Fox


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