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Short brings ’04 election to Sundance

MATT JAMES Of the Record staff
Cleveland City Councilwoman Fannie Lewis tries to rally election workers and materials on Election Day in 2004. Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
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While the Sundance Film Festival gets most of its publicity from the success of its competition films, the glamour of its premiers, from the stars and the parties, and all the fame, a whole other part of the festival exists.

The shorts programs offer some of the festival’s more intriguing comment, offering a view of upcoming filmmakers on the cusp of a major feature-length project or hoping to find funding for a bigger movie.

One of those films this year is Laura Paglin’s short documentary, "No Umbrella: Election Day in the City." It shows Election Day 2004 in a single precinct in Cleveland’s, Ward Seven, an inner-city area with a mostly black population and Democratic leanings.

Paglin, a Cleveland-based filmmaker, simply had to drive 15 minutes down the road to find the action. But she said the project almost didn’t happen.

"This was really kind of fortuitous," she said. "There were a lot of people making documentaries about the election, so I had no interest in doing anything."

But a production company called and asked her to plan a documentary project for Election Day. Eventually, the request fell through, but Paglin said it inspired her to go out and see what she could find.

"I didn’t want to miss out on the party," she said. "It would be kind of like missing a solar eclipse."

Figuring the action would be a little more interesting in some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods; she grabbed her camera and with no crew took a trip to that part of town. But she said she randomly picked Precinct T, in Ward Seven, but she found a story there.

The video from that rainy November morning shows the problems at the polling place, including a lack of voting machines, voting rosters and poll workers. All of those contributed to long lines and an unhappy electorate.

At the same time, octogenarian Cleveland City Councilwoman Fannie Lewis works to solve the problems at the polling place while rallying the voters.

"It was when I started shooting it [that] I realized it was pretty unbelievable," Paglin said.

While she said she felt self-conscious at times, filming the voters waiting in line and watching the controversy, the story developed before her eyes, with Lewis doggedly working multiple phones to try to find the proper Election Day workers and materials and the voters in the background complaining about the two-hour-long wait they faced and the poor state of preparedness at the polling place.

"I just decided to put it together," she said. "As soon as I started putting it together, I knew I had something."

Paglin said she shot and edited the film on an old camera she had lying around her office. The cost of the project? It stuck to very independent-film budget $25.

She said the postage to send the film to the Sundance Institute and other film festivals cost more than the actual project.

The results are gritty, not always steady camera work with a video-look, but the story is compelling.

Paglin said she suspected she might nab a Sundance spot.

"It was bizarre," she said, "I actually had a hunch I could get in."

She almost gave up after not hearing a call Thanksgiving weekend, but her fortunes turned on Monday, when she received her call from the institute.

While she went to Cleveland from Portland, Ore., for school and stayed for the low cost of living, she said the city had one thing that helped justify her distance from a significant filmmaking center.

"There’s a lot of stories in this city," she noted. "I think the election doc was successful because I lived here."

Her Sundance Film Festival invitation gave some justification for her Midwestern residence. But at the same time, Paglin noted some of the irony of her situation. While she had recently written and directed a full-length feature film, "Night Owls of Coventry," which failed to earn a Sundance nod, her grainy 25-minute documentary got her a ticket to Park City.

She wasn’t complaining about that, though.

"I see it probably as the opportunity of the lifetime," she said about Sundance, "because the whole industry is there."

But she acknowledged that no miracles are likely in the festival’s 10 days. She’ll work, she said on pitching her new project, a feature-length documentary, and enjoying the film festival.

She added that she didn’t want to waste the opportunity.

"I’m just trying to be prepared," she said, "because it’s kind of nerve racking."

"No Umbrella: Election Day in the City" will appear in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival as a part of the Shorts Program II, which will premier at the Racquet Club Theatre on Friday, Jan. 20 at 8:30 a.m. For more information and for a full list of screening times, go to http://www.sundance.org.


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