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‘Laramie’ will get Sundance ’02 rolling

Film likely to spark most debate, fest official notes

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"The Laramie Project," the opening-night film that kicks off the Sundance Film Festival, will also likely spark the most debate, according to Geoff Gilmore, the festival's co-director and director of programming.

Based on the acclaimed stage play by Moises Kaufman, the drama follows young filmmakers who are shooting a documentary about the killing of openly gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, a hate crime that made national headlines a couple of years ago. Kaufman also wrote and directed the movie version.

"I think the film has a real emotional power, as well as some real poignancy, to it," Gilmore said. "This is not an easy subject to deal with, but I can't think of how anyone could have done it better."

"The Laramie Project" is the centerpiece of Thursday's festivities, which kick off the 10-day showcase of U.S. independent films. It will be screened at 7:30 p.m. in Abravanel Hall. (The event is sold out.)

For the film, Kaufman did on-camera interviews with Laramie residents, and his performing cast includes such name actors as Christina Ricci, Steve Buscemi, Laura Linney, Jeremy Davies, Janeane Garofolo and Camryn Manheim.

Gilmore said the film couldn't come at a better time. "It's about acceptance and tolerance — two messages that need to be stressed right now."

He also believes that the film has a great deal of local interest.

Filmmaker Kaufman will attend tonight's events, as will most of his cast.

And after missing much of last year's Sundance schedule due to a revitalized acting career, Sundance guru Robert Redford is expected to attend and offer opening remarks to kick off the festival.

He's far from the only star expected at the festivities, however. Other likely attendees include Nicole Kidman (star of "Birthday Girl"), singer Mariah Carey ("Wise Girls"), Robin Williams ("One Hour Photo") and Jodie Foster, who produced and co-stars in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys."

Approximately 1,800 feature-length films and 2,000 shorts were submitted to the 2002 festival, but of that staggering number, only 5 percent — 113 features and 60 shorts — were chosen to be shown during the festival.

The five programmers at Sundance who selected those films had their work cut out for them. "There's a lot of exciting work going on in independent film," said Gilmore. "It's an unfortunate fact of life that we can't show every film that is submitted to the festival."

But some years the job is easier than others.

According to Gilmore, several films leaped out this time. "I can honestly say that this is one of the strongest fields in the history of the festival," he said. "I don't think the films in this year's Sundance can be pigeonholed — they're all unique and, I think, interesting and compelling. There should be a lot of talk and debate about quite a few of them."

This year's festival includes many other events in addition to the independent-film showcase. On Sunday, the Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision will be awarded to Benicio Del Toro, who won an Oscar this year for "Traffic."

There will also be panel discussions, an online festival, live theater, a music cafe and the closing-night ceremony, which includes the presentation of audience and jury awards to films in the festival's dramatic and documentary competitions.

The 2002 Sundance Film Festival goes through Jan. 20 in a variety of Park City locations, as well as the Cinemark Sugar House Movies 10, the Westates Trolley Corners Theaters and the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City, as well as the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.

A full schedule of screenings, and descriptions of movies playing at the festival this year can be found in the online film guide. Click on the film festival icon at www.sundance.org.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com