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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January 2005, 13:55 GMT
Festival shows new 'Fahrenheits'
By Yvonne Murray and Meade Harris
BBC News, Sundance

Young film-maker Shelby Knox and her parents
Shelby Knox confronted her school's attitude to sex
The opening of the Sundance Film Festival coincided with the second inauguration of President Bush. But, while the two events attract the powerful and the wealthy, politically their audiences couldn't be more different.

Sundance, in Park City, Utah, sees itself as an alternative, anti-establishment, festival.

It is celebrated as a platform not only for independent film-makers but also for documentaries.

This year is no exception, as several of the films being premiered tackle the controversial issues that are said to polarise American public opinion.

The Education of Shelby Knox, directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, follows a teenage girl for three years as she campaigns to change her school's 'abstinence-only' sex education policy.

"I realised that my own peers, the people around me were being very much affected by the lack of education," Ms Knox says.
What is it that compels America so inexorably towards war? I was driven to ask the question
Eugene Jarecki, director of Why We Fight

"I saw pregnant teens, STDs and I realised that the school system wasn't going to do anything about it. So I thought I should."

The interesting twist in the story of her fight is that she herself is a committed Christian who has taken the vow of True Love Waits, pledging to remain a virgin until marriage.

"It was never really a paradox for me because I knew that everybody needed the information," she says.

Conflict confronted

But it is the Iraq war that dominates this year's submissions, in both the domestic documentary competition and the newly introduced World competition.

Eugene Jarecki's powerful Why We Fight examines the idea that a confluence of military, political and industrial interests in the US make war if not inevitable, at least more likely.

Former NYPD sergeant Wilton Sekzer
Why We Fight talks to Wilton Sekzer, whose son died on 9/11

Critics are pitching it as this year's answer to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 - a comparison Jarecki himself rejects.

"I think it's natural for any artist living in a time of war to ask himself and those around him, why do we fight?

"What is it that compels America so inexorably towards war? I was driven to ask the question, not so much to answer it, but to ask it," Jarecki says.

In the World documentary section - a new category this year - British film-maker Sean McAllister tackles the subject of war in a very different but equally compelling way.

In the Liberace of Baghdad, McAllister tells the story of daily life for ordinary Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein, through the eyes of a concert pianist, Samir Peter.

Haunting melodies

"I wanted to make a film about what liberation meant for ordinary Iraqis, but I got led astray when I met Samir Peter," McAllister explains.

Pianist Samir Peter in the Liberace of Baghdad
Pianist Samir Peter has lost his star appeal in Baghdad

"Samir described himself as the Liberace of Baghdad. In his heyday he used to earn $10,000 a month as Iraq's most famous concert pianist. Today he plays for a few dollars a night and lives in a basement room in the hotel."

McAllister shares Mr Peter's anguish as a neighbour is murdered for associating with Westerners.

He spends hours listening to Samir's daughters lament the passing of Saddam's regime and sits with the now ageing 'Liberace' while he plays his haunting melodies of love lost and a country torn apart.

Sundance remains a platform for independent alternative films, as its founder Robert Redford intended.

However, the audience attending the premieres of these documentaries represents America's educated, middle-class and predominately white elite.

The question, therefore, is whether these challenging documentaries, greeted so enthusiastically in Park City's blue pocket, will ever even reach a mass audience - let alone alter points of view.

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