The Talent Bazaar

It was an irritating but not uncommon sight at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival: a guy in a movie theater whispering into his cellular phone as the lights go down. Agents and lawyers were crawling all over the snowy streets of Park City, Utah, this year; it was said that the William Morris Agency alone had 25 reps in place, scouring the festival for the next breakthrough twentysomething filmmaker. What was once the most laid-back, un-Hollywood film festival-designed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute to showcase American independent film-has become a tension-filled auction block, with long waiting lists for the hot screenings and nervous young filmmakers whose futures are on the line.

Every year since "sex, lies, and videotape" was discovered here in 1989, attendance has skyrocketed. To accommodate this year's 30 percent increase, extra screenings were added at the last minute in a school auditorium. The restaurants on quaint Main Street had spillover crowds, the nightly parties resembled the New York subway at rush hour and the local bus drivers were heard to complain about the boorish manners of the invading army of movie types. But if Sundance has acquired a reputation as the place to be discovered by Hollywood, the festival still struggles to maintain its egalitarian, countercultural spirit. At the gathering spot at "Z" Place, skiers and student staffers mixed with Justine Bateman and John Turturro; distributors, directors and reporters traded movie tips. You could bump into young filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, full of tales of how his Spanish-language, $7,000 feature "El Mariachi," intended for the Latin video market, became a Columbia Pictures release with a million-dollar marketing campaign. And where but at Sundance could one see a short film that features Matt Dillon mispronouncing excerpts from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

The good news was that Sundance was packed with good movies; the irony was that many of the best were not the films everyone was clamoring to see-they were in the documentary competition, programs featuring the new Hong Kong cinema or special screenings of work from Finland and Belgium, Canada and South America. But the main event here-what draws the Hollywood establishment-is the dramatic competition (reserved for U.S. independents), and this year's crop produced little excitement. There was a new generation of filmmakers on display, and while many of these young auteurs are obviously gifted, the promise was greater than the accomplishment. The divided jury split the grand prize between veteran Florida independent filmmaker Victor Nunez's "Ruby in Paradise" and newcomer Bryan Singer's "Public Access." Nunez's lovely, low-key, morally decent film spotlighted a wonderful actress, Ashley Judd (sister of Wynonna), as a young Tennessee girl fleeing an impoverished life in the mountains for a new start on the "Redneck Riviera" of West Florida. The 27-year-old Singer's a real talent, but the moody "Public Access" needed a stronger script. After an intriguing buildup, in which a mysterious stranger enters a small town and stirs up trouble on public-access TV, the story self-destructs.

Going into Sundance, the big buzz was about Jennifer (daughter of David) Lynch's hothouse "Boxing Helena." It's a lurid tale of a sexually obsessed surgeon (Julian Sands) who transforms his captive object of desire (Sherilyn Fenn) into his personal Venus de Milo by amputating her arms and legs. Alas, Lynch's opus proved more silly than scintillating. The feature film that got a standing ovation wasn't in the competition. It was British writer/director Sally Potter's witty, visually dazzling adaptation of Virginia Woolf's epic meditation on gender, "Orlando." The striking Tilda Swinton plays Woolf's hero/heroine, who experiences 400 years of history without aging, first as a man born in Elizabethan England, ending as a woman in contemporary London. "Orlando" is scheduled to open in the United States in June.

As it turned out, the real story of Sundance '93 was the renaissance of first-rate documentaries. They may not have caught the agents' attention (10 percent of a documentary director's income won't buy you a Lexus), but for riveting drama and meaty subjects they left most of the dramatic films in the dust. The jury members split their grand prize not because they were divided but because they equally admired the two winning films, "Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family" and "Silverlake Life: The View From Here." The former, about the culture of poverty in a slum in Palermo, Italy, spans 30 years in the life of a Sicilian family, first seen in black-and-white footage shot in 1961 by Robert Young and Michael Roemer, then revisited in color in 1991 by Andrew Young and Susan Todd. It's a fascinating, artful portait of fatalism and fortitude. The wrenching but never maudlin "Silverlake Life" may be the most honest depiction of AIDS on screen. When Tom Joslin, a filmmaker, and his lover of 22 years, Mark Massi, were diagnosed, they decided to keep a video diary of the course of the disease. Completed after their deaths by Peter Friedman, this painful but bracingly frank film isn't only an invaluable document of the day-to-day ravages of AIDS, it's a testament to an extraordinary relationship, a love story in extremis.

The heartwarmer (winner of both the Audience and Filmmakers awards) was "Something Within Me," which takes us inside St. Augustine's School of the Arts in the south Bronx, where dedicated teachers and turned-on students flourish against the brutal odds of inner-city life by making music. This is one film that earns that much-abused adjective "inspirational."

The portrait of America in many of these films tended to be more grotesque than beautiful. There was the droll, quirky "Road Scholar," in which the Romanian-born poet and radio commentator Andrei Codrescu serves as wry tour guide on a cross-country odyssey exploring the sometimes hilarious spiritual quests of ordinary Americans. The slick , wildly ambitious "Earth and the American Dream" illustrated in powerful detail the environmental cost of 500 years of American progress. In "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," filmmaker Nick Broomfield searches out the Florida prostitute who's admitted killing seven men, and raises startling questions about the judicial process and the sleazemeisters who have cashed in on her case. The movie depicts the born-again Christian woman who legally adopted Wuornos, demanding $25,000 from the filmmaker for interviews.

It wasn't in the competition, but perhaps the best documentary of all at Sundance was the Australian "Black Harvest," about a mixed-race coffee-plantation owner, Joe Leahy, in New Guinea. With the scale and richness of classical tragedy, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson's movie records the clash between tribalism and capitalism, the ancient and the modern, and the downfall of a man caught between two cultures. During the two-year course of filming, a tribal war broke out and the bottom fell out of the coffee market; the audience is witness to a spectacle few fiction writers could rival. Appreciative crowds in Park City left the pristine ski resort with an astonishing dose of reality-and a reminder of why, by turning its back on the real world, so much of today's commercial cinema seems tired and unadventurous. The dealmakers may have had a disappointing year, but the real goal of the Sundance Film Festival was fulfilled: to celebrate the stubborn, maverick and often not-for-profit visions of the independent moviemaker.