San Francisco Chronicle

4 Bay Area movies to screen at Sundance Gifford-written film also makes the cut
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer  
Thursday, December 5, 2002

Nancy Kates knew she might be hearing from the Sundance Film Festival selection committee last week, but she never imagined that the call would arrive on her 40th birthday -- or that she'd be trying on underwear when the important call came through.

"Cell phones are so funny this way," says Kates, who lives in Berkeley and whose documentary, "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin," was chosen for the festival's elite documentary competition next month. "I was visiting my brother in Brookline, Mass., and I was in the changing room of a lingerie store trying on a bra."

The phone rang, festival programmer Caroline Libresco broke the news and Kates abruptly threw off the bra, changed back into her clothes and stepped out on the sidewalk to continue the conversation. "The woman who was trying to sell me the bra was very confused," Kates says.

Kates, who co-directed her film with New Yorker Bennett Singer, is one of four Bay Area filmmakers chosen for the country's most prestigious indie-film showcase, scheduled for Jan. 16-26 in Park City, Utah. She joins Sam Green, co- director of "The Weather Underground," and Jonathan Karsh, director of "My Flesh and Blood," in the documentary competition; and Mark Decena, whose modern love story, "Dopamine," was chosen for the dramatic competition.

Berkeley novelist and screenwriter Barry Gifford ("Wild at Heart") will also be represented. "City of Ghosts," a film he wrote, directed in Cambodia by actor Matt Dillon, will be shown in the festival's American Showcase sidebar. The Sundance roster of shorts, which perennially includes some Bay Area entries, will be announced Monday.

"We were very much sitting on eggshells, hoping like every other filmmaker that we'd get the call," says Decena, 43, who shot his film largely in trendy, picturesque South Park in the South of Market district. "I got the call the day before Thanksgiving, which made for a very nice holiday."

Green, 36, was walking down Ninth Street in front of the Film Arts Foundation -- a resource and advocacy organization for indie filmmakers -- when his cell phone rang with the good news. And Karsh, 31, who hosted KPIX's "Evening Magazine" from 1998 to 2001, was working out at his gym, Gorilla Sports, when he got the call.

Decena, a Sundance veteran who's gone twice with short films he directed, says he developed "Dopamine" in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab. The title refers to the neurotransmitter that's released in the body when one falls in love and creates a giddy euphoria.

In "Dopamine,'' a computer programmer (Jon Livingston) obsessed with analyzing the nature of love meets a preschool teacher (Sabrina Lloyd) who craves unconditional romance. "The movie looks at love and asks whether it's a chemical or biological reaction, or the magical thing we all hope that it is," Decena says.

"My Flesh and Blood," inspired by an "Evening Magazine" featurette, is Karsh's first film. It tells the story of Susan Tom, a single mom in Fairfield who raises 11 adopted children, each of them disabled. When one of her sons, suffering from cystic fibrosis and a bipolar disorder, threatens to kill his siblings, the onscreen drama escalates.

"We were practically living in the house for a year," says Karsh, who shot "My Flesh and Blood" in cinema-verite style, "like a fly on the wall. . . . It was heart-wrenching what unfolded -- it makes 'The Osbournes' look like 'Ozzie and Harriet.' "

In "Brother Warrior," Kates profiles Rustin, an influential civil rights strategist who conceived the historic March on Washington in 1963. "He was a very, very important person in civil rights history," Kates says, "But he's been largely hidden from history because he was an openly gay man." Rustin died in 1987.

Green's "The Weather Underground," co-directed with Chicago's Bill Siegel, also looks at American politics in the 1960s and '70s. Green was drawn to the subject, a group of radicals intent on dismantling the American government, because "it's a complicated story, with no clear right and wrong. I tried to embrace that complexity."

Currently doing a three-month artist's residency at Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, Green says he wanted to avoid the cliches of movies set in the scrambled, perennially misrepresented '60s. No "Star-Spangled Banner" spewing angrily out of Jimi Hendrix's guitar, he promises, and no stock footage of protesters heaving rocks at police.

"It's not a straightforward PBS film."


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