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Sundance 2002: Courting controversy

The annual Park City film festival remains edgy in its screening choices

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The Sundance Film Festival is no stranger to controversy. In its 22 years of existence, the largest showcase for independently produced cinema has made its reputation by being edgy, exhibiting films other festivals were afraid to show.

For example, the Sundance festival has championed gay cinema, with such films as "Parting Glances" (1986) and "Go Fish!" (1994) paving the way. Also shown in the 1994 festival was the comedy "Clerks," which originally received an NC-17 rating because of its frank and sexually graphic language. (The film's rating was later changed without cuts to an R). And Quentin Tarantino's debut, "Reservoir Dogs," was part of the 1991 festival and helped usher in a mini-movement of thrillers more violent and gory than anything since the heyday of Sam Peckinpah.

Two of last year's most popular selections, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and the documentary "Southern Comfort," featured transgendered individuals. And even "The Blair Witch Project," a smash at Sundance in 1999, was as loathed as it was loved.

To no one's surprise, this year's edition will uphold the tradition. During its 11 days, the Sundance Film Festival will include screenings of 113 feature-length films and 60 works of shorter lengths "marked by unusual work that is not formulaic nor generic," according to Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's co-director and director of film programming, "(These are) films that are beyond quirky and really push the limits, redefining what independent film is all about."

The centerpiece of Thursday night's Opening Night Premiere festivities will be "The Laramie Project," a drama based on Moises Kaufman's stage play about the killing of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepherd.

But that's not the only film in the 2002 festival that may cause some uproar. Among other "hot-button" topics addressed by this year's slate of films are:

Homophobia and hate crimes. In addition to "The Laramie Project," the documentary "Family Fundamentals" looks at conservative Christians trying to cope with gay family members, and another documentary, "Two Towns of Jasper," examines the violent death of Texan James Byrd Jr.

Child abuse. The central character of "Where Eskimos Live" is part of a child-slavery ring, and the documentary "Close to Home" attempts to get into the minds of convicted child sexual abusers.

The death penalty and capital punishment. The documentary "The Execution of Wanda Jean" records the final moments of a prisoner on death row.

Kinky sex. Seemingly conservative characters in "Miranda," "Storytelling" and "Secretary" find themselves in illicit relationships, while those in "On the Line" seek sexual fulfillment.

Religion. In "Stolen Summer," a boy tries to convert a Jewish family to Catholicism. Those trying to get out of the "Devil's Playground" are Amish youth. And "Sister Helen" looks at the Benedictine nun trying to rehabilitate addicts.

Of course, not everything will be controversial. Both "Paradox Lake" and "Pumpkin" examine relationships with the developmentally disabled. And characters in the films "Daughter from Danang," "Face," "Honey for Oshun," "Manito," "Skins" and "Streeters" are either searching for their respective families or trying to come to terms with them.

Movies shown as part of the festival's Dramatic Competition, Documentary Competition, American Spectrum, World Cinema, Frontier and Native Forum section will compete for jury and audience awards.

The 2002 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 10-20 in a variety of locations in Park City and Salt Lake City, as well as Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.

In addition to film screenings, the festival also includes the Sundance Digital Center, the House of Docs, the Gen-Y Studio, the Music Cafe and panel discussions examining issues related to contemporary cinema.

Each year Sundance also presents the Piper Hiedsieck Tribute to Independent Vision to a performer who best "embodies the independent spirit." This year's recipient is Benicio Del Toro, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year for "Traffic."

Individual screening tickets are on sale at the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City and the Gateway Center in Park City. A rundown of films is available at those locations, and the official festival Web site features a downloadable film guide (under "Sundance Film Festival" at www.sundance.org.

Further information on the festival is also available on the Web site or by calling 907-4050. For ticket prices or ticket availability, call either 521-2525 or 1-435-649-4333.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com