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Written Off?

When rejected from Duke's Documentary Happening, an "erratically brilliant, but semi-formed" regional filmmaker writes the film community an open letter.

What's a film festival without some controversy and wounded feelings? A lively e-mail exchange broke out last week in the regional filmmaking community when director Doug Vuncannon, whose work was rejected from this year's Documentary Film and Video Happening, distributed an "open letter" to festival director Dawn K. Dreyer. (The seventh annual Happening happens at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies this weekend.)

Vuncannon sent the letter after being notified that Titanium in Gilbert, his short, avant-garde documentary about a knee-replacement operation, would not be included in this year's Happening. (In the interests of disclosure, Vuncannon is an occasional contributor to The Independent, and we have worked on films together in the past.)

In his otherwise gracious missive, Vuncannon made the following disingenuous comment: "I continue to be nagged by one dark thought. I sincerely hope that none of the committee members that opposed the film and questioned its thematic continuity were reacting to its political content. I am not making such a charge, but I sometimes wonder how willing festivals are to screen material considered 'unpopular.'"

Despite the paranoid drift of this passage, Vuncannon's letter actually reflects a mellowing in temperament. He's a restlessly creative autodidact, but one who is prone to defensiveness in the face of criticism. Nonetheless, the fact that his film wasn't included among the 22 works by emerging filmmakers--many from North Carolina--in this year's Happening is surprising.

Titanium in Gilbert, a huge audience hit when it premiered last year at Carrboro's Flicker Festival, is an absorbing, expressionistic study of a man's knee-replacement operation. In his film, Vuncannon coaxed gorgeous images out of black and white Super-8 stock. His assured camera movements and rhythmic editing were intoxicating.

Using various subjective techniques, Vuncannon effectively conveyed the excruciating pain his subject was experiencing, and leavened his film with considerable humor. In terms of visual excitement and aesthetic adventurism, Titanium in Gilbert was the real deal. It demonstrated Vuncannon's interest in following the genre-busting footsteps of such idiosyncratic and legendary documentarians as Werner Herzog (Lessons of Darkness, My Best Fiend), Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, The Thin Blue Line) and Les Blank (Burden of Dreams, Gap-Toothed Women, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe).

However, the selection committee was apparently less impressed with what it found to be the thematic disunity of the film. In the film's final part, Vuncannon abruptly turns his attention to the American drug laws that made it difficult for his subject to find adequate pain relief. Compared with what came before, this is the section Vuncannon believes might have been the source of discomfort for the Happening's selection committee.

Despite his undeniable talent, there's a streak of adolescent solipsism running through Vuncannon's films, one that also manifests itself in his hypersensitivity to criticism and rejection. In the case of Titanium in Gilbert, this tendency also allows him to fancy himself the first artist to challenge this country's drug policies.

Now doing the artist-in-exile thing in Berlin, Vuncannon has never been afraid of giving offense or risking embarrassment: An earlier film, Home, Again, featured in its climax a full-frontal shot of him skinny-dipping in the Eno River. Less than a year ago, he widely circulated a much more petulant (and funny) open letter to Wilmington's Cucalorus Film Festival. In it, he vented his spleen over his film's rejection in favor of such apparently superior gems like Ding-a-lingless, a comedy about a man without a penis.

Vuncannon's letter included something between a manifesto and an apologia. "It was ... my intention to create something novel and to stretch the conception of 'documentary,' to create a film beyond simple classifications. I'm not bold enough to claim success, but I will say that I threw my heart into the effort."

Ironically, when asked for comment, Dreyer said, "Actually, I loved the film. But there was divided opinion. I don't believe it was the political content at all. The committee didn't feel that the three sections held together very well."

Regarding Vuncannon's, um, non-charge, there's no reason to believe that the Happening's selection committee had sinister motives for rejecting his film. But since the Happening is intended to encourage the ambitions of nascent, local filmmakers, it's unfortunate that there will be no convergence of the teaching aims of the festival with one of the more erratically brilliant, but semi-formed talents this area has produced in recent years.

Still, if the audience reaction to Titanium in Gilbert at Cat's Cradle last year is any indication, and if the selection committee did in fact find 22 better films than Vuncannon's work, this year's Happening is going to be one hell of a festival. Get your tickets now. EndBlock

David Fellerath can be reached at fellerath@indyweek.com.

  • Written Off?

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