The radioactive fallout that traveled from a Nevada nuclear test site to southern Utah and beyond will be the subject of a documentary scheduled to premiere in Park City in January, at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.
The documentary “Downwind” will be a “spotlight feature screening” at Slamdance, one of 34 feature films to play in Park City, January 20-26, the first time since 2019 that the scrappy alternative to the Sundance Film Festival will take place in Utah.
Premiering the film in Utah is important, said co-director Mark Shapiro, because “Utah is the soul of our film. The people and the experiences that we had in the Beehive State were really powerful and inspirational.”
“Downwind,” directed by Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller, chronicles the nuclear testing that happened in southern Nevada — specifically, the closed-off town of Mercury, which saw some 928 nuclear weapons detonated between 1951 and 1992. The filmmakers talk to members of the Shoshone Nation, whose sacred land continues to be cordoned off as a nuclear test site. The movie also features “downwinders,” people who have suffered from the radioactive fallout of those tests.
The film is narrated by actor Martin Sheen, whose lifetime of activism includes getting arrested for protesting nuclear testing in Nevada. Others appearing in the film are actor-producer Michael Douglas, comedian Lewis Black, and actor Patrick Wayne — whose father, John Wayne, starred as Genghis Khan in the 1956 action film “The Conquerer,” which was filmed in the St. George area, exposing the cast and crew to fallout.
Shapiro said it was during the COVID-19 pandemic that he and Miller came across the story of “The Conquerer,” and how many of its stars — Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz and Agnes Moorehead — as well actor-singer Dick Powell, who directed the film, and nearly half the cast and crew were diagnosed with cancer.
“The Conquerer” featured several battles on horseback, Shapiro said — and the horses, and the local members of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes who were hired as extras, kicked up a lot of dust. That dust contained fallout from the nuclear test sites to the west in Nevada. (Shapiro noted there’s a famous photo from the set, showing John Wayne and his son, Patrick, with a Geiger counter, measuring the radioactivity in the area.)
The fallout from the Nevada test site, Miller said, wasn’t limited to Nevada, Utah and the southwestern United States. He pointed to a famous map, created by a researcher named Richard Miller (no relation), that showed radioactivity detected between 1951 and 1962 from Nevada all the way to the Atlantic.
Miller said the U.S. government, for years, ignored or downplayed the problem of nuclear fallout. “Because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it’s not going to hurt you,” Miller said. “If we saw a storm coming, like a tornado, we know what to do. We get the hell out of the way, right? We [didn’t] know what to do when these invisible particles showed up.”
Shapiro said the filmmakers’ aim for the documentary is that “we want people to understand the significance of nearly a thousand nuclear blasts, and the radioactive fallout that really impacts us all.” The filmmakers also plan to hold a panel discussion after the premiere screening, featuring some of the experts and activists interviewed in the movie.
The other “spotlight feature” announced Monday by Slamdance is the closing-night film, “Free LSD,” written and directed by Dimitri Coats. The comedy centers on a man who takes an experimental drug, and finds himself in a parallel universe where he is the singer of the punk band OFF! (of which Coats is a member). In the story, the man is targeted by an alien species bent on preventing the band from recording an album “which holds the key to an awakening of human consciousness,” according to festival organizers.
“Free LSD,” which includes appearances by actor Jack Black and rocker Keith Morris, will bookend the festival with another punk-themed movie. The opening-night film, previously announced, is “Punk Rock Vegan Movie,” a documentary directed by the music producer Moby, which traces the connections between punk bands and vegan activism.
Slamdance will run in Park City and Salt Lake City Jan. 20-26, and online on the Slamdance Channel Jan. 23-29. The Park City venue has not been announced.
The Salt Lake City venue is the theater in the University of Utah Olpin Union Building, which will have free screenings of Slamdance’s Unstoppable program. The program will feature five films made by and about people with disabilities.
The 34 feature films were chosen from 1,522 movies submitted. All of the narrative and documentary competition films, in accordance with festival rules, are by first-time directors, without U.S. distribution, with budgets of less than $1 million. The festival’s Breakouts section is devoted to films by directors making their second or later movies.
Tickets and passes are available at slamdance.com. The Slamdance Channel is available for $7.99 a month through Roku, Amazon Fire Stick or Apple TV.
Here are the titles of the movies in the narrative and documentary competitions, and the Breakout and Unstoppable programs, of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival. (Synopses provided by Slamdance.)
Narrative feature competition
• “The Girl Who Was Cursed” (Netherlands) • Directed and written by Zara Dwinger. “Stoner girl Gizem spends most of her day smoking weed on the couch while spying on her neighbors through binoculars. When the quirky boy across the street disappears, she has to get out of her comfortable cloud of smoke to find out where he is. She gets caught up in a strange quest.” Cast: Sinem Kavuz, Victor Ijdens, Frieda Barnhard, Ilker Delikaya.
• “Love Dump” (United States) • Directed by Jason Avezzano; written by Leila Gorstein and Jesse Kendall. “Trash-filled love ensues when a quirky antique shop owner searches for her missing father, and falls for a determined dog lawyer along the way.” Cast: Leila Gorstein, Jesse Kendall, Rob Grabowski, EJ Cameron, Zoe Agapinan, George Elrod, Lauren Summers, Tyler Davis.
• “Mind My Goofiness: The Self Portrait” (United States) • Directed and written by Alex Michel. “A strange dream; favors for friends; the end of the world. It’s just one of those days for Alex as he runs errands he never needed to, all while making sense of a recurring deja vu throughout the journey of his day.” Cast: Alex Michel, Duante Wingham, Symone Holmes, Rob Rice, Perry Goeders, Ian Peterson, Juice Wood, Emara Vee.
• “Mad Cats” (Japan) • Directed and written by Reiki Tsuno. “Taka, a shiftless young man, sets off on a quest to find his brother Mune. Teaming up with a quirky new friend and an edgy, mysterious young girl along the way, Taka finds himself taking on a pack of vicious monster cats determined to execute unscrupulous pet shop owners.” Cast: Sho Mineo, Yuya Matsuura, Ayane, Michael Aaron Stone, So Yamanaka.
• “New Religion” (Japan) • Directed and written by Keishi Kondo. “Miyabi lost her only daughter in an accident. One day, she meets a strange man. The man demands that she let him take a picture of her spine.” Cast: Kaho Seto, Ryuseigun Saionji, Satoshi Oka.
• “Nut Jobs” (Canada) • Directed and written by Alexandre Leblanc. “Benjamin tells his ex-girlfriend, Angie, that he joined a cell of left-wing terrorists to get revenge on her former boss, who owns a right-wing radio station. His story blends conceptual artists, amateur theater troupes, hallucinogenic vinyl record and other magical powers. All that nonsense leaves Angie wondering if he made that up only to win her back.” Cast: Jean-Sébastien Courchesne, Sophie Desmarais, Benoit Bourbonnais, Annie St-Pierre, Richard Fréchette, Mathieu Bourque.
• “A Perfect Day for Caribou” (United States) • Directed and written by Jeff Rutherford. “An estranged father and son spend the day ambling around a cemetery, wandering the wilderness, searching for family, and stumbling through disharmony and heartache.” Cast: Charlie Plummer, Jeb Berrier, Oellis Levine, Dana Millican, Wrick Jones, Rachael Perrell Fosket, Connor Brenes.
• “Stars in the Ordinary Universe” (South Korea) • Directed and written by Bowon Kim. “Three stories from three different earths in the multiverse.” Cast: Seoyoon Park, Gyoho Shim, Dongmin Oh.
• “Unicorn Boy” (United States) • Directed and written by Matt Kiel. “When a heartbroken young artist is sucked into a unicorn-run alternate dimension, they must help conquer a dark force in order to bring peace to the kingdom and themselves.” Cast: Matt Kiel, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Harold Perrineau, Sarah Natochenny, Katie Leclerc, Brett Davern, Parvesh Cheena.
• “Waiting for the Light to Change” (United States) • Directed by Linh Tran, written by Linh Tran, Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag. “Over the course of a week-long beachside getaway, Amy, having recently undergone dramatic weight loss, finds herself wrestling between loyalty to her best friend Kim and her attraction to Kim’s new boyfriend.” Cast: Jin Park, Joyce Ha, Qun Chi, Sam Straley, Erik Barrientos.
• “Where the Road Leads” (Serbia) • Directed and written by Nina Ognjanović. “Jana runs to save a life of a foreigner who can take her far away from her home town.” Cast: Jana Bjelica, Zlatan Vidović, Vladimir Maksimović, Ninoslav Ćulum, Igor Filipović, Svetozar Cvetković, Branislava Stefanović, Eva Ras.
Documentary feature competition
• “Cash Cow” (United States) • Directed and written by Matt Barats. “In the fall of 2020, a financially struggling actor camps and explores early Mormon historical sites as he anxiously awaits national broadcast for his Domino’s Pizza commercial.”
• “Cisco Kid” (United States) • Directed by Emily Kaye Allen. “In a queer portrait of the contemporary American West, Eileen – a young, solitary maverick – forges a life among the discarded remnants and lingering memories of a desert ghost town called Cisco.”
• “The Mad Writer” (United States) • Directed and written by Zach Kashkett. “With his star on the rise, hip-hop phenom L’Orange confronts a stunning diagnosis that threatens both his hearing and his burgeoning career.”
• “Motel Drive” (United States) • Directed and written by Brendan Geraghty. “Within a community of motels infamous for illicit activity, the Shaw family grapples with housing insecurity and addiction while trying to raise their young son. When California’s High-Speed Rail Project displaces them, a glimpse of stability appears within reach. A vérité, street level vantage of post-industrial America, documented over eight years, on one city block.”
• “Silent Love” (Poland, Germany) • Directed and written by Marek Kozakiewicz. “After their mother’s death, 35-year-old Aga has to take care of her teenage brother, Milosz. There is one thing she isn’t telling him about: her ongoing relationship with Maja. An unconventional family is being born in a small, conservative Polish village.”
• “Space Happy: Phil Thomas Katt and The Uncharted Zone” (United States) • Directed by Louis Crisitello. “A group of ragtag artists making ‘so bad it’s good’ music and videos in Pensacola, Florida, under the direction of the eccentric Phil Thomas Katt. Spanning over five decades of footage, ‘Space Happy’ is a portrayal of creative minds pursuing art against all odds — and talent.”
• “Starring Jerry as Himself” (United States) • Directed by Law Chen; written by Jerry Hsu and Law Chen. “A family documents how their immigrant father Jerry, a recently divorced and retired Florida man, was recruited by the Chinese police to be an undercover agent.”
• “Sweetheart Deal” (United States) • Directed by Elisa Levine & Gabriel Miller; written by Karen KH Sim. “Four sex workers caught in the spiral of addiction turn to a self-proclaimed healer offering friendship and a path to salvation from the streets inside his roadside RV. But just as they begin to rebuild their lives, a shocking betrayal comes to light that will change them all.”
• “With Peter Bradley” (United States) • Directed by Alex Rappoport. “Seventy-nine years old and overlooked since the 1970′s, abstract artist Peter Bradley reflects on life and shares his artistic process on the cusp of his rediscovery.”
• “The Art of Silence” (Switzerland, Germany) • Directed and written by Maurizius Staerkle. “The first feature documentary about the legendary pantomime Marcel Marceau. He inspires several generations of artists, among them his grandson and family, who cast a new light on his life’s work. As a child, Marceau experiences the execution of his Jewish father by the Nazis. A trauma that motivates him to join the French resistance and spurs his deep conviction in the art of silence.” Cast: Marcel Marceau, Anne Sicco, Camille Marceau, Aurélia Marceau, Louis Chevalier, Rob Mermin, Georges Loinger, Daniel Loinger, Christoph Staerkle.
• “Fuzzy Head” (United States) • Directed and written by Wendy McColm. “Insomnia-ridden Marla is on the run after the murder of her mother. Now, Marla must confront her everlasting void to find out the truth of what really happened and at last, undo all that’s been done.” Cast: Alicia Witt, Wendy McColm, Jonathan Tolliver, Numa Perrier, Fred Melamed, Cassidy Butler, Richard Riehle, and Rain Phoenix.
• “Mascot” (Netherlands, Belgium) • Directed by Remy van Heugten; written by Gustaaf Peek. “With his radical behavior, teenager Jerry endangers not only himself but his entire family.” Cast: Liam Jeans, Maartje Remmers, Leopold Witte, Geert van Rampelberg, Frederike van Oordt, Mouad Nineb, Joes Brauers.
• “Onlookers” (United States, Laos) • Directed by Kimi Takesue. “‘Onlookers’ offers a visually striking, immersive meditation on travel and tourism in Laos, reflecting on how we all live as observers. Traversing the country’s dusty roads and tranquil rivers, we watch as elaborate painterly tableaus unfold, revealing the whimsical and at times disruptive interweaving of locals and foreigners in rest and play.”
• “The Underbug” (India) • Directed by Shujaat Saudagar; written by Shujaat Saudagar, Abas Dalal, Hussain Dalal. “As India is ravaged by sectarian violence on the eve of its Independence Day, two rioters take refuge in an abandoned house. An eerie presence in the house, however, haunts the men to the edge of sanity.” Cast: Ali Fazal, Hussain Dalal, Areenah Fatima.
• “What is the Lie?” (Philippines) • Directed by Quark Henares; written by Quark Henares, John Bedia. “Hopeless romantic Janzen Torres finds another chance at love when she matches with the handsome and seemingly perfect Theo Balmaceda on a dating app. Unfortunately, on the day of their meet-up, Theo ghosts her, leading Janzen into an intricate web of deceit, lies, and catfishing led by sociopathic mastermind Beanie Landridos.” Cast: Maris Racal, EJ Jallorina, Royce Cabrera.
• “American Pot Story: Oaksterdam” (United States) • Directed by Dan Katzir & Ravit Markus; written by Dan Katzir. “‘American Pot Story: Oaksterdam’ tells the unknown origin story of how a handful of underdogs risked everything to spark the current worldwide revolution in cannabis policy. Reflecting Oakland, California’s rich history of civil resistance, they opened the first ever cannabis college, Oaksterdam University, and got Prop. 19 — a measure to legalize cannabis — on the ballot in California, thus bringing this taboo topic to the mainstream and opening a conversation on its social justice impact.” Cast: Dale Sky Jones, Richard Lee, Jeff Jones, Salwa Ibrahim, Governor Gavin Newson.
• “Okay! (The ASD Band Film)” (Canada) • Directed by Mark Bone; written by Greg Rosati, Andrew Simon. “Four performers on the autism spectrum form a band and take on the challenge of writing and performing their first album of original songs.” Cast: Ron Adea, Jackson Begley, Rawan Tuffaha, Spenser Murray, Maury LaFoy.
• “Sexual Healing” (Netherlands) • Directed and written by Elsbeth Fraanje. “Evelien (53), spastic from birth, yearns for intimate contact and recognition for who she is. Sexual Healing follows her courageous quest for intimacy: touching, funny, sensual and rewarding. Naughty in all the nice ways. Sexual Healing is a tough, yet light-hearted universal film about the necessity of intimate contact for all of us human beings.”
• “Sign the Show” (United States) • Director: Cat Brewer. “‘Sign the Show’ immerses the viewer in conversations with entertainers (including Kelly Clarkson, D.L. Hughley and André 3000), the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, and popular American Sign Language interpreters to discuss the DEI & Accessibility movement at live music, comedy, and theater performances in a humorous, heartfelt, and insightful way.” Cast: Waka Flocka, Kelly Clarkson, André 3000, D.L. Hughley, Camryn Manheim, Matt Maxey, Nyle DiMarco.
• “Wisdom Gone Wild” (United States) • Directed by Rea Tajiri. “In this moving and original reflection on aging, mortality, and transformation, Rea Tajiri partners with her mother, Rose Tajiri Noda, to create a film about the final 16 years of Rose’s life as a person living with dementia.” Cast: Rose Tajiri, Rea Tajiri.