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Sundance Film Festival: Rich meet poor on opening night

Published January 20, 2012 11:51 am

"Queen of Versailles" sets tone for festival full of economy-themed films.
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Park City • The 2012 Sundance Film Festival, which head honcho Robert Redford says identifies with America's 99 percent, kicked off Thursday night with a documentary that asked its audience to lend some sympathy to the 1 percent.

An audience at Park City's Eccles Theatre applauded enthusiastically for "The Queen of Versailles," director Lauren Greenfield's tragi-comic look at David and Jacqueline Siegel, whose plan to build a 90,000-square-foot mansion in Orlando, Fla., was sidetracked when David Siegel's timeshare empire suffered reversals in the economic crash of 2008.

"When it started, [the movie] was more of a cinema-verite look at wealth," Greenfield said after the screening. "The tone definitely changed. … They start as the 1 percent, who you look at with fascination. Then they become more relateable, and more of an everyman story."

That may be overstating it a bit, even to an Eccles audience populated in good part by Sundance's wealthy patrons and sponsors.

David Siegel's Westgate Resorts still is the largest timeshare firm in the world, owning 28 resort facilities – including the Westgate in The Canyons area of Park City. Meanwhile, even when the company is shown suffering from layoffs, Jacqueline Siegel's attempts to economize – such as Christmas shopping at Walmart, but then buying carts overfilled with toys – are depicted as comic.

Jacqueline Siegel waved to the Eccles audience after the screening, but didn't join Greenfield onstage for questions after the film. Because of that, she did not have to field an audience member's question about a lawsuit filed last week by David Siegel and Westgate, seeking damages from the Sundance Institute – and from Greenfield and her husband, the film's executive producer, Frank Evers – over a description of the film issued when the festival announced its program in November.

Greenfield declined to comment on the lawsuit, because it is "active legislation." Greenfield also gave Jacqueline Siegel an out, because this was the first time she had seen the movie. "I'd like to give her a little space to absorb the film before we all ask her questions," Greenfield said.

Greenfield said she sees a connection between the Siegels' plight and that of nonwealthy people. "What you see at the end is a readjustment of values," Greenfield said. "As a country, we're all looking at that."

If the 99 percent doesn't identify with the Siegels, the second Sundance title that premiered at the Eccles on Thursday night might have been a better fit. The comedy "Hello I Must Be Going" centered on a 35-year-old woman (played by Melanie Lynskey) forced by circumstance to move back in with her parents.

Before "The Queen of Versailles" screened, Redford took the Eccles stage for a brief welcoming address.

"I think it's obvious that we are in a time of tremendous change," Redford said. "Some want to fight against it – and we can see who is fighting it from their behavior. We embrace it."

That embrace can be seen in many of the festival's films, which tackle big issues about the economy, tax policy, poverty, the War on Drugs and America's health-care system.

Earlier in the day, Redford fielded questions alongside festival director John Cooper, and Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, who reminded everyone about Sundance's year-round mission to support independent filmmakers through labs and fellowship programs.

Redford and Putnam touted a new form of support for independent filmmakers: Sundance's new Artist Services program, which helps makers of what Redford called "orphan films," movies that failed to get distribution. "If certain films don't fit into the [festival] buzz, they might not get picked up," Redford said.

Putnam added that Artist Services has helped filmmakers raise $1.5 million via the online fundraising site Kickstarter, and the program has helped make 13 titles available through online platforms.

Independent film isn't just a stepping-stone to a cushy Hollywood job anymore, according to Cooper. "I hear from filmmakers having an artistic life," Cooper said. "A lot of them are sticking with independent film, almost as a movement."

Redford added: "Independent film is healthy. That doesn't mean that it's easy. It's never been easy."

The festival kicks off in full Friday, with a slate of screenings in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort.

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A Sundance lawsuit

A timeshare developer whose empire includes a Park City property has filed a lawsuit against the Sundance Institute and the makers of the "The Queen of Versailles," which screened Thursday, Jan. 19 to open the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Florida developer David A. Siegel and his company, Westgate Resorts Ltd., filed the lawsuit earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Orlando, Fla. It claims Sundance and documentary director Lauren Greenfield and her husband, executive producer Frank Evers, defamed him in a description of the film.

The lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages from Sundance, plus another $75,000 from the filmmakers, plus unspecified punitive damages.

The movie profiles Siegel and his wife, Jacqueline, as they built a 90,000-square-foot mansion just as Westgate was riding the storms of the global financial crisis. More Sundance



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