Rumors were rampant at the Sundance Film Festival on the night of the Hounddog premiere. Everyone expected a crowd of picketers, or at least a handful; the director and the stars were whisked quickly into the theater to avoid an ugly confrontation.
But in spite of the heightened press and security, no protesters materialized. It was all sound and fury, signifying nothing, which is also a good description of the political and media circus that has surrounded the film since midway through shooting in the summer of 2006 in eastern North Carolina.
In indie filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier's first feature, Virgin, a teenaged girl living in a small town is raped, and the consequences of the violation ripple through her dysfunctional family and unsympathetic community. Kampmeier's second feature, Hounddog, enlists the most ubiquitous child actor of the last few years, Dakota Fanning, in once again tackling the issue of sexual abuse. In this sort of "issue" film, it would seem impossible for a filmmaker to land on the wrong side of the issue—after all, who's in favor of child sexual abuse?—but a funny thing happened on the way to the festival. Kampmeier found herself accused of the very crime the film depicts.
Hounddog was shot last summer in the countryside surrounding Wilmington, the hub of North Carolina's film production industry. The precociously talented Fanning plays Lewellen, an Elvis-obsessed preteen from a broken home, whose problematic childhood goes from bad to worse when an older teenaged boy brutally assaults her. The trouble began when Blue Line Radio, a conservative Christian station based out of nearby Wrightsville Beach, got hold of a working script. In August they reported that, "according to sources on the set, the filming was frontally lit and Dakota was clearly visible as she was groped, licked, pawed and humped by an actor take, after take, after take."
Someone alerted the sheriff of Brunswick County, where portions of the film were purportedly shot, and, as reported by Blue Line, he opened an investigation to determine whether the film constituted child pornography. (Nothing came of the charges.) In chat rooms and online discussion groups, word spread of the sinister depredations of the publicity-seeking filmmaker. Eventually the mainstream conservative press picked up the story. By January it was making the rounds as a liberal outrage of the week on Fox News's Hannity & Colmes.
At the Sundance premiere on Monday, Jan. 22, all the commotion had predictably amounted to free publicity. The sold-out screening was one of the harder tickets of the festival, though it's difficult to tease apart the political brouhaha from Sundance audiences' customary celebrity worship (with Fanning as the draw) as contributing factors.
Viewing the film, it quickly becomes apparent that all the outrage of the previous months was completely unwarranted. Angry critics had invoked a lurid set, with Fanning, in a body stocking and pasties, explicitly suffering a simulated violation. But in the film, all nudity is implied, not simulated; Fanning is shot in close-up above the neck. In their accusations of exploitation, critics had also suggested that even in the absence of nudity, real or simulated, subjecting a 12-year-old actress to a recreation of rape amounts to psychological abuse. But the scene was shot as a series of deliberately framed close-ups, which surely spared Fanning a sustained performance in real time, lending credence to Kampmeier's frequently reported assertion that at no time during that scene did any actor's flesh touch Fanning's.
In the end, the only thing a reasonable person might find offensive in Hounddog is its by-the-numbers parade of Southern clichés. The movie's biggest drawback is its stagy and artificial style, which may have insulated Fanning from the trauma that a gritty, realistic tone, like that of Catherine Breillat's 2001 feature Fat Girl, would have occasioned. Hounddog's lack of artistic merit has turned off film critics, who have dismissed it as "rubbish" and "indigestible." The film has yet to find a distributor.
Meanwhile, there's still life in the film as a political football. Recently, N.C. Senate Republican leader Phil Berger called for rules changes that would demand prior script approval for the state's film production incentive program. "It is inappropriate for our policy makers to be giving away North Carolinians' hard earned tax dollars as cash handouts—especially for films depicting child rape," Berger's office declared.
In the end, the hoopla surrounding Hounddog is less about child sexual abuse than about the current state of the culture wars. A generation ago, Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster played prostitutes at the ages of 12 and 14, respectively, in the movies Pretty Baby and Taxi Driver, with less attendant hue and cry, although Shields' full nudity in a few scenes provoked concern.
Today, however, an angry and mobilized religious right is poised to shout Sodom and Gomorrah at a film that's less explicit and hard-hitting than a TV movie of the week. A clue to the virulence of the loathing the film has inspired may be found in the persona of Kampmeier: An outspoken feminist with new-age inclinations, she's exactly the type of person that conservative Christians love to hate. It's a shame that they felt the need to pick a fight with her, turning an issue as clearly one-sided as child rape into another case of us versus them. —Marc Maximov
Perhaps the most fascinating film event happening in the Triangle this spring is not taking place in a commercial theater or being regularly advertised in any newspaper. For all the new releases, perennial festivals, charitable events and IMAX eye-candy available for community consumption, the Screen/Society film series at Duke University is a hidden gem, a showcase for classic domestic and international cinema that doubles as a kind of free, seasonal film school for the general public, cinephiles and neophytes alike.
The Screen/Society brand dates back to the early 1990s, but its current incarnation began in 2001 under the auspices of Duke's Film/Video/Digital program. Hank Okazaki assumed the post of F/V/D's Exhibitions Programmer the next year and set out developing Screen/Society into its current semester-long, biannual format.
With Okazaki's evolving expertise and the program's increased on-campus profile has come a more diverse, dramatic array of films. "What is special about Screen/Society," says Okazaki, "is its freedom to collaborate with other university departments and centers and access their resources. Film/Video/Digital supplies logistics and they help provide ideas and funding."
Comprising approximately 40 films, this spring's Screen/Society began Jan. 16 and has already provided a number of highlights. A tribute to Oscar-winning cinematographer Sven Nykvist showcased a double feature of Louis Malle's Pretty Baby and Ingmar Bergman's Persona. The "WWII in French Cinema" series, co-sponsored by Duke's Center for French and Francophone Studies, launched with a screening of Rene Clement's Forbidden Games and a 35mm screening of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows.
The Asian/Pacific Studies Institute is co-sponsoring the series "Cine-East 9: New East Asian Cinema," which after starting out with the anime hit Spirited Away and action thriller Full Time Killer will segue into a number of contemporary Asian documentaries and a 35mm screening of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Barren Illusion on Feb. 13.
Increased funding for the Film/Video/Digital department has also afforded Okazaki the ability to place a heavier emphasis on obtaining rare 35mm prints of most of the films screened by Screen/Society. "In the case of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, the film's rights-holder in the U.S. doesn't have a [35mm] print, so we had to arrange to get a copy through the French embassy in New York."
On Feb. 27, Screen/Society will team with the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival to present a double feature of short films addressing the topic of Surveillance: Documentary and the Hidden Camera, followed by a panel discussion moderated by David Paletz, political science professor at Duke and director of the Film/Video/Digital program. A series on International Science Fiction will bring Werner Herzog's Wild Blue Yonder on March 21 and a restored 35mm print of the classic Godzilla on April 25. And, a four-film retrospective on documentarian Fredrick Wiseman, who will be speaking at Duke on March 26, will begin March 19 with Law and Order, followed by Titicut Follies (March 21), Nasher (March 24) and the six-hour, rarely seen Near Death (March 25).
Those in search of more mainstream fare may prefer the Kenan Institute for Ethics' "Morality of Power" series, which begins on Feb. 21 with Stephen Gaghan's oil opera Syriana and will later show Steven Spielberg's Munich, the Oscar-winning Crash, and a 35mm print of the seminal Battle of Algiers (April 11). —Neil Morris
For more information on Screen/Society, including a schedule of films, dates and screening locations, go to www.duke.edu/web/film/screensociety/schedule.html.