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Sundance’s heady brew: parties, posers, politics

Paris Hilton, Al Gore among the festival attendees
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

“I just got a mouthful of mink!” shrieked the diminutive hipster publicist in the ironic rocker baseball T-shirt who had just been bowled over by the greatest force of nature to hit snowy Park City so far this year — Paris Hilton.

The flummoxed flak had made the crucial mistake of camping out by the side door of an A-list agency’s Sundance bash when the Hilton heiress made her grand entrance with a crew of party people direct from central casting.

On the dance floor, Andre 3000 — half of the innovative hip-hop act Outkast — bobbed his head as a bevy of babes tried to get his attention. Hilton and her pals left the publicist in their wake and headed to the bar, past a transvestite DJ who looked like a middle-aged dentist, only in a black sequin top and pageboy wig.

In a year when “swag” replaced “buzz” as the most spoken bon mot among the Main Street cognoscenti — “swag” referring to the freebies that flow from such companies as Levi’s and Motorola to VIPs during the festival — Hilton was just one of scads of the famous-for-being-famous crowd who showed up in Park City with little more to do than test-drive Volkswagens, try on Seven brand jeans and sip Skyy vodka at Park City parties.

Serious films, frivolous atmosphereBut just across town, and a world away, next to the local Albertsons supermarket, a digital projector at the Holiday Village Cinema III was about halfway through the 149-minute “Repatriation.” The film is director Kim Dong-won’s documentary about the agonizing psychological and physical survival of North Korean political prisoners detained for decades, suffering systematic torture for 40 years.

For, ironically, it also has been a year in which a slew of particularly politically charged films unspooled and helped to define the Sundance lineup: Beyond “Repatriation” there was “Deadline,” a documentary about two journalism students who uncover evidence that exonerates a death-row inmate in Illinois; “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” which was acquired here by IFC Films and poses the question, “What if the South had won the Civil War?”; and HBO’s “Heir to an Execution,” which explores the Red scare that led to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s executions.

“I don’t think there is a community here at this festival; what I see is a lot of white people in parkas that want to get their movies picked up by a major studio,” indie auteur John Sayles says, sitting on a leather couch at the cozy, makeshift Filmmakers Lounge on a crisp Utah morning before giving a master class — hours before the glamour-pusses would start to stir, don their free Gucci shades and nurse altitude-enhanced headaches.

On the fringes of SundanceThe veteran of the indie wars was in town to teach a class called “John Sayles and the Art of the Possible” as well as to host an event thrown by lefty advocacy group and to talk about his next film, the politically savvy “Silver City,” a follow-up to “Sunshine State,” which features a hapless Bush-like candidate from a family of conservatives.

“I see quite a lot of young people who are getting very political,” the ever-edgy Sayles says. “But they are not necessarily in the film business. They are a little more off the grid. They are people who don’t want to end up in Hollywood.”

One incident that suggested that the two worlds in evidence at Sundance may not really be so far apart took place one evening at Chimayo, a tony eatery along Main Street. A roomful of agents, execs, press and locals were jarred from their encrusted salmon dishes as a political figure entered.

“Hey, it’s Al Gore!” someone exclaimed. “Oh, I wanna meet Al Gore!” whined a pretty Hollywood assistant as the locals blocked the failed presidential candidate’s path and started snapping photos.