Live from Sundance Film Festival
By ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah–In the film “Holy Rollers,” an Israeli drug dealer recruits Hasidic Jews from an Orthodox Brooklyn community as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Amsterdam into the United States.
The film is inspired by actual events that occurred in the late 1990s, said director Kevin Asch, who along with his cast, came here to the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered.
“At the time, in the late ’90s, Amsterdam was to ecstasy what Colombia is to cocaine,” Asch explained as he and his cast sat down for a round-table with reporters at the Bing Bar on Main Street. “The pills are manufactured there. Danny (Abeckaser) plays this character this Israeli drug smuggle. His character has the idea to use these Hasidic Jews from this Brooklyn neighborhood. and him being Jewish himself, he was able to infiltrate these neighborhoods and meet these young Hasids that at first they innocently got involved not really understanding what they were doing and since they don’t have have much experience with drugs, they were told they were smuggling medicine for rich people. Once some of them just did one trip, made a little bit of money, and disappeared back into their community, the others…were seduced into this life and got a little bit involve and then a lot more involved.”
“I don’t think they even had an idea that they were doing anything illegal,” Abeckaser said. “The way the movie plays out, it’s all about their faith and their battle within their family and their community. This is what they are about to lose.”
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg, who reluctantly follows the path his family has chosen for him: an arranged marriage and studying to become a Rabbi. His neighbor, played by Justin Bartha, proposes that his friend transport “medicine” for an Israeli dealer and his girlfriend, Rachel (Ari Graynor).
Exposed to the exciting and gritty worlds of Manhattan and Amsterdam nightlife, Eisenberg’s character, Sam Gold, ends up experimenting with ecstasy and falling for Rachel.
Asch said getting his small film into Sundance “is the greatest honor I’ve ever had. It’s just been overwhelming for me hearing the news.”
It was Abeckaser who first saw the real-life account of ecstasy smuggling on a Discovery Channel documentary five years ago and mentioned it as a possible film project to the director.
Bartha and Eisenberg, in researching their roles, tried to observe the Hasidic community up close, but found that outsiders are not welcomed with open arms.
“It’s a very small film and that played to our advantage,” Asch said.
They filmed on the peripherals of the Hasidic community. “One day we went and infiltrated Williamsburg while we were shooting. We went out there on the street with Jesse and the camera.”
“Most people that are outsiders are looked upon as weird,” Abeckaser said. “I remember going and trying to talk to people and just getting to know them and even though I’m a Jew, they wouldn’t talk to me. I tried going into a synagogue…They’re very tight and stick to their own so it was very difficult to actually go out and shoot there.”
He said they took pains to be respectful to the community. “Obviously, the journey they go on (in the film), they go a little bit into the dark side, but at the end they all find their faith…and that’s the story we’re telling….Jesse’s character, Sam, at the end finds out that the path that he is living with is the right path and gets back into his community and gets back to his religion.”
“I guess the reason Sam is pulled into this world is because he has this ideal…that you can become rich and have this great life without any of the dark side that that brings,” Eisenberg said. “As the movie progresses, Sam sees that dark side and it ultimately turns him off.”
“There’s really something so beautiful about this culture and we really wanted to honor that,” Asch added.
By ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah–Ran into Glenn Kiser, the vice president and general manager of Skywalker Sound–part of George Lucas’ Lucasfilm empire–at a party on Main Street Sunday night during the Sundance Film Festival and was surprised to learn that there’s much more to Kiser’s unit than making sure explosions, gunfire and car crashes sound real. In fact, a large part of their work is in helping indie filmmakers with small projects get the best sound possible for their low-budget passion projects.
Let Kiser tell the story:
“A lot of people hear Skywalker Sound and they think ‘Avatar’ or ‘Star Wars’ or big pictures from Robert Zemeckis or Steven Spielberg and they don’t necessarily think of us as being a place that is open and accessible for independent film and for filmmakers to do their post-production sound. But we’re up in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, which is kind of the home of iconic, classic, independent film and it just so happened this year that we usually have one or two movies that are opening at Sundance that we have done. This year we have four movies premiering, including ‘Howl,’ ‘Please Give,” and ‘Skateland’ which is in dramatic competition and “Other People’s Money. So, we decided to throw this party for our filmmakers and it’s been really fun!
“I know George Lucas is our owner and I know he’s happiest when we have on our mixing stages Jim Cameron or Robert Zemeckis finishing one of their movies and on the stage next to them there is a first-time filmmaker desperately trying to finish their movie and get it into Sundance.
“We really make an effort that we are open and accessible and that was can do a variety of different projects with different budget ranges. So, that’s why we’re here. Most of us are in this business because we have a passion for movies.
“We also have a really good relationship with the Sundance Institute that we have cultivated over the years and they develop projects that go through their laboratory process and we’ve worked on a number of those films as they’ve come together. As they get movies that go through the Sundance Institute, if it’s something that actually has interesting possibilities for sound, they’ll call us up and say ‘Here is a young director with a a first-time film that has really interesting possibilities for sound. Would it be something that you guys would be interested in?’
“i have a lot of Academy Award winning sound designers in movies who work on a lot of these big movies, but I’ve got a lot of younger, junior sound designers and sound mixers who also are very hungry they want to make a name for themselves. So, they’ll take some of these new projects and just do an amazing job. And then they use that as kind of a calling card to further their own careers.
“A lot of people think, oh, well, the sound for an independent movie, that must be really easier. But kind of the dirty little secret in our business is that if it’s a bi effects movie with lots of explosions and chaos, sometimes that’s easier sound-wise than actually taking these little, small-crafted dialogue movies and really making them sound good… because a lot of times in independent films, they are so conscious and so worried about shooting the movie that they don’t necessarily come out with good production sound.”
Mingling with other partygoers was Jeffrey Friedman, who co-directed “Howl.” He said, “Skywalker is really, really good to independents and to the Bay Area film community. Glenn Kiser has been really, really great for us. You just know it’s going to come out right.”
“Howl,” a film based on the early life of Beat poet Allen Ginsburg, was the opening film at this year’s festival. Friedman said he had mixed feelings about that.
“We didn’t want to open the festival. It’s too much pressure. The first-night film. Everybody has like a spotlight on you. But it was such an honor. It was like an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
By ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah– WAITING FOR SUPERMAN: The filmmakers who gave the world the Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which featured former Vice President Al Gore raising alarms about the controversial issue of global warming, are back with a new film exploring the uncomfortable truths of American public education.
The film, which had its premiere here at the Sundance Film Festival, is called “Waiting for Superman” and the question it asks is: despite decades of well-intended reforms and enormous sums of money spent on our schools, why are conditions in our public schools no better than they were in the 1970s?
“When you see the movie, you’ll see that there are some things that you kind of know essentially, that in some of our toughest neighborhoods, the schools are failing,” said director Davis Guggenheim. “What the revelation is that a lot of our schools, even our middle class schools in white neighborhoods are having trouble…If we don’t face it it won’t just be about grades, it’s be about our economy and about crime and about our well being.”
Guggenheim, a father of three school-aged children, said he got interested in the issue when he looked up the test scores of his neighborhood school in Venice, Calif., and found them so damning that he couldn’t stand to send his kids to public school.
“The first documentary I ever did was about public school teachers,” he said. “…I love teachers and wanted to become a teacher and made a film about heroes as teachers and now when it came time to send my oldest kid to school, I started thinking about how are public schools? I realized that for 10 years things haven’t gotten better. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.”
In 2008, Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott set out to find families participating in the public school lottery process, where many of the best schools admit students in the fairest way they can–by lottery.
From an initial 20 families, the filmmakers chose to narrow the number down to five in the film. They include Anthony, a Washington, D.C., fifth-grader orphaned by drugs; Bianca, a Harlem kindergartner whose mom is stretched to the limit paying her Catholic school tuition; Daisy, an East Los Angeles fifth grader whose parents didn’t finish high school; Emily, a middle class Silicon Valley eighth grader trying to stay off the dead-end remedial track; and Francisco, a Bronx first grader who has already been denied entrance to seven charter schools and has just one more chance to get out of his overcrowded neighborhood school.
According to the film, since 1971, educational spending in the U.S. has more than doubled from $4,300 per student to more than $9,000 per students, adjusted for inflation. In that same time period, reading and math scores have remained flat in the U.S. and risen in virtually every other country.
The film also found that a bad teacher covers only 50% of the required curriculum in a school year, while a good teacher can cover 150%.
In Illinois, the film contends, one in 57 doctors lose their medical licenses; one in 97 attorneys lose their law licenses; but for teacher, only one in 2,500 have ever lost their credentials.
Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, NY, was a consultant on the film and attended Friday’s press conference.
“It’s not just the economy,” Canada told HollywoodNews.com. “We have young people who have just not learned a way to make it. They don’t have the skills. You have to give them a chance. This is not really a society where they have found any equality or opportunity–and it’s all based on schools. The only answer is public education for these children. They can’t afford private education.”
The film was produced by Participant Media whose mission is to tell compelling, entertaining stories on issues that shape our lives today. Participant films include The Kite Runner, Charlie Wilson’s War, Darfur Now, An Inconvenient Truth, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Standard Operating Procedure and The Visitor.
Paramount Pictures acquired the distribution rights to Waiting for Superman at Sundance although an exact release date has not yet been determined.
BY ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah – “Restrepo” takes audiences by the hand. We see him in flashbacks: laughing, hugging and goofing with his Army buddies as they deploy for war in Afghanistan. His name is Juan “Doc” Restrepo, medic for Battle Company, Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His The death, in action, of Restrepo led members of Battle Company to erect a remote and strategic outpost in his name in the deadly Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan–considered one of the most dangerous postings in the war.
In their riveting documentary, “Restrepo,” which premiered Thursday on the opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington provide a gripping look at American soldiers battling an unseen Taliban enemy. A crowd of over 1,000 attended making it the largest audience for a documentary in Sundance’s fabled history. Apolitical in tone, the film does not question why we are in Afghanistan, but provides a boots-on-the-ground snapshot of men in combat. Buddies die with their faces blown off and we watch as one soldier, realizing his pal is dead, has an emotional breakdown–with the enemy only yards away. We watch as the outpost leader tries to explain to an Afghan elder why the soldiers had to slaughter his cow (because it got caught up in concertina wire and was incapacitated), then refuse the elder’s request that the Army pay for the cow, instead telling him they will gladly give him the cow’s weight in rice and beans and sugar, but not the $500 he is demanding. Or, we see the fatigue in a captain’s face as he explains how difficult it will be to convince an Afghan father that the Americans are on their side when airstrikes have just wounded his baby and killed others in the village. To watch one Afghan elder yawn as officers try to explain how America will bring jobs to their village is revealing to say the least.
Junger and Hetherington began filming in June 2007 and made a total of 10 trips to the Korengal on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News. They ate, slept and survived the heat, cold and boredom with the soldiers, bringing back 140 to 150 hours of video.
After the screening, Junger and Hetherington answered questions from the audience. Were they scared? “We’re big boys,” Junger, a veteran war correspondent, replied. “…By the third trip, we felt we were part of the platoon.” Each man had a camera–which often got smashed on rocks or clogged with dirt or hit with shell cartridges during fire fights.
One of the strengths of the film are the individual sit-down after-deployment interviews in Italy with surviving Battle Company members. The pain is evident on their faces, even when masked by constant smiles. One soldier says he can’t sleep at night because of the constant nightmares. Another says that he never wants to forget what he saw because remembering, in an odd way, infuses him with a will to live. One man simply has to take a break from talking, his emotions too raw.
Junger noted that all but one of those interviewed are still in the Army. He said 10 to 12 of them are back in Afghanistan, some serving only 15 miles from the Korengal.
The National Geographic Channel has worldwide rights to the documentary, which will premiere in the fall.
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