ALISON STEWART, host:
KORVA COLEMAN: You're welcome.
STEWART: So Rachel, the first day of the Sundance Film Festival was a little bit like being the first day at creative kids school camp.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: Yeah, returning campers, mostly media who know the ropes, how to get the credentials, the best seat at the press conference…
STEWART: …where to park. We, the new kids in the cabin - we struggled a little bit early in the day, but we conquered a lot of this in the small town mining town of the ski resort. For the next 10 days, it is Cinema Camp.
Robert Redford called the culture of Sundance that supports all kinds of independent creative endeavors: art, music, authors. More on that from Mr. Redford in a moment as everyone calls him here Mr. Redford.
MARTIN: Do they really?
STEWART: Yeah, in the press conference - very respectful.
STEWART: There are 122 films at this festival, from 25 countries, with 51 new filmmakers being represented. The categories are shorts, docs, dramatic features.
So, also, the place is just crazy with people full of accents. PIBs as they are called - people in black - that's what the locals call all the filmmakers you saw wearing black. And the streets are very crowded and there is very little transportation. So it's kind of a challenge to get around. As we found out, when we ran into some first-time Sundance attendees, these 20-somethings, they made in the Sundance for the short film about execution, meet the makers of "The Execution of Solomon Harris."
Ms. ERIN STAUB (Art Director, "The Execution of Solomon Harris"): My name is Erin Staub. I'm the art director for "The Execution of Solomon Harris."
STEWART: And you are?
Mr. WYATT GARFIELD (Director, "The Execution of Solomon Harris"): Wyatt Garfield. I'm co-director and cinematographer for "The Execution of Solomon Harris."
Mr. ED YONAITIS (Director, "The Execution of Solomon Harris"): My name is Ed Yonaitis. I'm the writer and co-director.
STEWART: Okay, Mr. Writer and Co-director, what's the film about?
Mr. YONAITIS: The film is about execution that takes place about 30 years ago. It's what you call chair execution that goes terribly, terribly wrong. The power goes out when they pulled the switch so the prisoner is left, not killed, but screaming in pain from the jolt of electricity. And it's up to the warden and the other guards to decide what's the responsible thing to do in this situation.
STEWART: That's so complete repression. The Supreme Court just heard that case about whether or not certain forms of execution or it's cruel and unusual punishment. This is our bus?
Mr. YONAITIS: It's our bus. I think it's our bus. We should get on.
STEWART: Okay. We should all get on.
Ms. STAUB: Okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: All right. So we have to continue the interview on the bus. And then, art director, are you okay with this?
Ms. STAUB: Yes, that's great.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: So when someone gives you such serious subject and says, hey, you're going to be the art director on my film? But this is about an execution gone wrong. What did you first think?
Ms. STAUB: I think my first thought was that I've worked with these guys before and that's the most important thing - that we know that we work really well together, and no matter what the subject matter is. But it's going to be a great, fun experience. So that was - my first reaction was yes because I love working with these guys.
STEWART: What was challenging for you about this project?
Ms. STAUB: It's really, you know, recreating kind of a 1950s feel in the South in a prison. And there's not a lot of documentation and stuff like that, especially of executions themselves. So making it realistic and believable - I kind of like doing more fanciful things so it's a stretch for me. But I like doing it a lot.
STEWART: So tell me what's your goal at Sundance is - why you're here?
Mr. GARFIELD: We have no real expectations. We hope to, you know - I don't know - meet as many people as possible, and we'll see what comes out of that.
Mr. YONAITIS: We want to make a feature film.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GARFIELD: Yeah, oh, yeah, that too.
STEWART: Okay. So we left those filmmakers when we got into Park City proper. And about an hour later, we found ourselves at this thing called the New Frontier presentation. This is what Redford was talking about when he talked about there were different kinds of art and different media being represented.
It was featured - visual video artists, including a Bangladeshi American named Hasan Elahi. You may have read about his story. He's been covered pretty widely. He's an artist and professor at Rutgers, who says he was detained by the FBI upon returning to the U.S. from the Netherlands shortly after 9/11.
Now, after months of, what he says the questioning, he had to show his receipts, his schedules. He had, what he described as, quote, "interviews by the authorities."
Elahi took his experience and turned into an art installation of self-surveillance. He said, well, his story was, if the government is going to watch me for all this time, I watch myself and them watching me. So with this video installation, a roomful of 22,000 pictures from the most mundane parts of his life over the past five years and they shift like a slide show. Hundreds projected on three walls at once. It's called Tracking Transcience. Here is Hasan Elahi. We caught up with him inside the video installation.
Mr. HASAN ELAHI (Assistant Professor of Art, Rutgers University): At the end, I was finally cleared, or supposedly cleared. I was never - anything official because I was never formally charged with anything so I could never be formally cleared of anything.
Mr. ELAHI: It was - and then, the polygraph repeated nine times consecutively. And at the end of all that, basically they said, well, you know, if you run into trouble, give us a call. We'll take care of it. And then it hit me that, why am I telling only the FBI? Why don't I just tell everyone? And this was how this project came about.
So I started working on this project and it started off with a very simple photo of where I was on the Web, then a photo and a map. Then the map got more and more sophisticated and the photos started moving. Then pictures of the meals that I was eating where uploaded. Then pictures of the airline food that I was eating…
STEWART: So your point is FBI, do you want to know what I'm doing? You're going to know everything that I'm doing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ELAHI: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, what it comes down to is - obviously I have an FBI file.
Mr. ELAHI: But on the other hand, we know governments make mistakes and we know governments are not the most efficient entity. I mean, just by the nature of the design of it, it's too complicated for it to be incredibly efficient. So I've decided that I can watch myself a lot better than anyone can, including any government intelligence agency. And I've decided to make - I decided that my file that I've created is much more thorough because no else has information. I mean, everything down to my bank statements, down to - even the toilets that I use, everything is out there. And these are some of the images of every place that I've been and every place - every image that I've used in my project for the last five years.
STEWART: And just for the record, we did call the FBI, and they did not confirm or deny anyone on their watch lists.
Okay. So after that we ran across the street to the official opening day press conference. Just hoards of camera crews and flash photographers really cranked it up when Robert Redford walked onto the stage with the festival's program director Geoff Gilmore and the director of the opening night film, "In Burges."
Here is Mr. Redford.
Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor; Founder, Sundance Film Festival): The word independent is meant to be, you know, not exactly contrarian but, I mean, this - it's something that might not be available as the mainstream becomes main. Normally, this is what's going on in the marketplace. This is the flavor of the year or this period of time. But we're going to go over here, you know, as Freud said look in the other corner. And so that's been our objective, and it's been satisfied by all the films that have come up that are doing it. So you can say it's political in the sense that it's free from what the norm is doing.
STEWART: And Redford went on to talk about what keeps the festival fresh year after year.
Mr. REDFORD: What excites me about this is that you're seeing such a personal reflection about people dealing with issues like despair, like frustration, like lack of hope or, you know - what do you do about a world condition that you have no way to get your grip on to make a difference in.
So you cut down to something very small and very personal because that's something you can't put your arms around. And that I find very, very exciting because Sundance has always been committed more to the humanistic side of storytelling in film.
So I think you're going to see that it's just going to continue. And right now because the pendulum swings, you're going to see things that are more - I think you'll see more levity in the festival at a certain point where things are really happy and fun - or so we thought. Things move to the dark zone.
I mean, it's a reflection of our time and I think maybe you're going to see more humor. Even if it's dark humor like Martin's work, you're going to see more humor just because how long can you sit here and be frustrated and despairing but you can't do anything about something.
So that's what I really do appreciate about the work here is that you can come here and in a sense you're getting a bit of a benchmark about what's going on in society and how artists are trying to deal with this. It's kind of like a form of survival.
STEWART: And finally, the locals. The locals, they don't love it so much with all these people who have overrun their town. They say that while it's great for the economy, the PIBs - the people in black - cause a hassle or two.
We met this fellow outside a packed local bar called the No Name Saloon of Debauchery…
MARTIN: I loved that bar.
STEWART: …who had this experience.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: How did the two worlds mix? How do they fare?
Unidentified Man: Well, it's really interesting. Last night, you know, everybody was setting up on Main Street and I was dropping a local, a buddy off up here, and nobody in Park City honks their horn. So I stopped to drop a buddy off and a construction worker was crossing the street, and somebody was behind me honking their horn.
Yeah, and that - you know, it's just like nobody…
STEWART: How dare they.
Unidentified Man: Nobody does that. It's just not very polite in Park City. And there was, you know, I looked at the plates and they are California plates. And so I said, okay, you know, no road rage here, you know. It's just, like, road rage for us is just blazing down the mountain at 45 miles an hour and getting frostbite on our cheeks.
MARTIN: That's (unintelligible).
STEWART: So there you go. That's a little diary of our day, our first day at Sundance. And of course, we did it all on camera. There's a video diary which will be up on the blog a little later on, Rachel.
That's, of course, npr.org/bryantpark.
MARTIN: It sounds like you're having fun.
STEWART: We're doing it. We're diving in. Head first. So we've got a bunch of filmmaker interviews set up for the weekend. And I will also talk to the festival director in the next hour.
MARTIN: Cool. We'll that is it for this hour of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark.
I'm Rachel Martin in New York.
STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart in KCPW in Utah.
Thanks for listening, everybody.
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