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CHICAGO 10: A Sundance History Lesson

Thursday, December 21----If another indication of the growing influence of non-fiction film was needed, the prestigious Sundance Film Festival has decided to open its ten-day celebration of indie and international cinema with a documentary film. CHICAGO 10, a factual and fanciful look at the infamous trial of organizers of the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968, a turning point in America’s evaluation of the Vietnam War, will open the Festival on January 18.

Documentaries are indeed hot…. The probable Oscar winner for Best Documentary, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, has been a worldwide sensation, shocking audiences into debate and political action about the dangers of global warming, while making Presidential also-ran Al Gore a certifiable movie star. The film has become the third most successful documentary film at the box office in history.

Films that offer a you-are-there look at the conflict in Iraq (IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, GUNNAR PALACE, THE WAR TAPES) have offered a disturbing portrait not found in traditional media sources, that have turned the corner on dissent for a costly and bloody quagmire.

Even BORAT, the fictional travelogue of a faux Kazakhstani journalist trolling across America in search of (what is left of) its heart and soul, is a nod to non-fiction….albeit a fictional character who brings out the real heart of darkness imbedded in common Americans. All this hoopla is directly traceable to Michael Moore, whose FAHRENHEIT 911 and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE not only occupy the number one and number four positions in documentary box office receipts, but also made documentaries (once the sole preserve of public broadcasting or cable networks devoted to ancient history or the mating habits of animal species) cool again.

And let’s not forget about those penguins…..Last year’s MARCH OF THE PENGUINS was a certifiable box office sensation by any standards, costing less than $5 million to produce and having garnered more than $100 million around the world and counting. In fact, the film was such a success that the Weinstein Brothers, ever ready to jump on the profit bandwagon, have joined with the BBC to produce a documentary on South African’s meerkats, rodents with a personality who seem to mate for life. Expect meerkats to be the mammal du jour when the film is released in 2007.

So, it is this atmosphere of renewed attention, where every film distributor in town is suddenly in the documentary game, that Sundance decided to spotlight a new kind of documentary film, which uses decidedly non-traditional techniques to tell its tale. CHICAGO 10 is the brainchild of Brett Morgen, whose previous credits include the boxing film ON THE ROPES (1999) and THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (2002), a cine-memoir of the now-retired producer Robert Evans (of LOVE STORY, THE GODFATHER and CHINATOWN fame).

Morgen has been working on this latest documentary film since 2001, amassing over 180 hours of film, 200 hours of audio and a 23,000 page court transcript of what was the trial that defined the 1960s….the proceedings in December 1969 which the US government brought against the Chicago Eight, political activists accused of conspiracy to commit violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That most of the violence was commited against them and others protesting the escalating war in Vietnam was only one of its many ironies.

What distinguishes Mr. Morgen’s film from previous accounts of the trial (which includes both theatrical stage versions and a few traditional documentary films) is his unique experimental approach, with over a third of the film played out in personalized animation technique. “I didn’t want the film to be a valentine to the 1960s”, Morgen stated in an interview published recently in The New York Times. “I didn’t want to have a bunch of old men taking about how vibrant they were in their youth….I wanted the film to be playful and not overtly academic.” His aim is to not only recall this infamous period in American history, but to draw parallels to the current situation vis-à-vis the Iraq War and to inspire young people who have the potential to create social change.

While there is ample visual documentation of the violence that erupted on the streets of Chicago during the Convention, when police came down hard on defenseless young protestors of the Vietnam War, most of the trial was not captured visually. Morgen decided to eschew a talking heads approach or use dramatic re-enactments, or focus the camera on static courtroom drawings. His novel approach was to create original animation to capture the “cartoonish” nature of the proceedings.

The animation technique used is “motion capture”, where live actors’ movements are then digitally regenerated into animation (the technique has been used in such films as THE POLAR EXPRESS and Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY). This allowed the director to create the mis-en-scene and camera angles in any given scene, giving the film much more of a directorial point of view. Working with the digital animation company Curious Pictures, Morgen was able to bypass the role of the traditional animator, giving him total control over the performances of his cast.

That cast includes the voices of such actors as Nick Nolte, Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Jeffrey Wright, Dylan Baker and the veteran actor Roy Scheider, who voices the enigmatic Judge Julius Hoffman, who presided over the courtroom circus. In another novel approach, one of the two defense counsels on the case, Leonard Weinglass, will voice his own animated character. The second lawyer, the respected but controversial William Kunstler, who has since passed away, is voiced by Liev Schreiber. In fact, the title of CHICAGO 10 is a nod to the stories of the eight defendants (who included such colorful characters as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale) and to the two crusading defense attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass, whose accounts of the “miscarriage of justice” continued to resonate in a time when unauthorized eavesdropping, wiretapping and false evidence are again rampant in American jurisprudence.

The result is a very contemporary re-telling that is a mix of traditional animation and special effects technology that should broaden the audience potential of the film to young people who were not even born when the actual events took place. This potential audience reach attracted the interest of Participant Productions, a company that has distinguished itself with its commitment to social activist cinema that has a broad appeal (they backed both AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and last year’s Oscar-nominated docudrama GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK).

CHICAGO 10 is only the second documentary film to have opened the Sundance Film Festival in its 25 year history (the first was RIDING GIANTS, a surfing film, that was the Festival opener in 2004). It is also one of the few prominent films in the Sundance lineup that comes to Park City without a distributor in place (although that could certainly change in the next few weeks). The film’s producers have announced that they will NOT be showing it to buyers prior to its Opening Night screening, all but ensuring that a bidding war will break out during the Festival’s first 24-hours…..setting a tone for the feeding frenzy to follow on and off the slopes of Park City, Utah.


Sandy Mandelberger
Sundance Dailies Editor

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