"Sister Wife" goes to Hollywood
April 17, 2009
the filmmakers’ own admission, the success of "Sister Wife" has come as a pleasant surprise for auteurs Jill Orschel and Alexandra Fuller, both Park City residents. Orschel and Fuller are co-producers and editors, and Orschel is the project’s director.
The 10-minute film explores the life of DoriAnn, a 41-year-old member of the Mormon Fundamentalist Church who shares a husband with her sister. Establishing trust with DoriAnn was vital to the making of "Sister Wife," and one reason it took Orschel nearly three years to complete the project. She started visiting DoriAnn in 2006, and invited Fuller, a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker, to join the project. The result is an evenhanded examination of DoriAnn’s beliefs that has resonated with audiences and critics, Orschel said. "Different combinations of people are making sense of the film," she said.
"Sister Wife" was the only film from the South by Southwest Film Festival selected for a popular quarterly DVD collected, "Wholphin." The collection, whimsically named after a whale and dolphin hybrid, is the brainchild of author Dave Eggers.
Additionally, "Sister Wife" will be screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. It has already been shown at festivals in Aspen, Colo., and Dallas.
"Fifteen minutes is a lot for a 10-minute film," Fuller joked Wednesday. "It’s at the higher end of our dreams." Whether considering a festival invite or inclusion on an unorthodox DVD collection, each success comes with attendant conversations among the women. (How does one explain McSweeney’s, Eggers’ hip publishing house, to someone who has never read its content?)
At the heart of the film is, of course, DoriAnn herself.
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Initially, DoriAnn wasn’t open to the idea of being in a film. She worried that her husband and sister wouldn’t accept the idea, or that the film could put a strain on their relationships, she wrote in an email to The Park Record earlier this week. "Actually I was not at all open to the film," she explained. "[I] spent time and tried to introduce Jill to anyone in my circle for her proposed film, anyone but us. Jill was very persistent, though, and did not give up until she got what she wanted, which seems amazing to me now."
Today, DoriAnn embraces the idea of a full-length project, in some form. "I am not only open to full-length completion of this documentary, I am counting on it," she wrote.
Orschel responded with enthusiasm, and a little surprise, at DoriAnn’s willingness. "The door is still open for me," she said. "I think there’s more to be done."
Orschel and DoriAnn spent a year warming to each other before they agreed to make a movie. "This isn’t a Cinderella story. It didn’t happen overnight," Orschel said of the project, and her experience as a filmmaker. From the beginning, Orschel said her goal was to give DoriAnn a voice. "I want the film to speak for itself and I want DoriAnn to speak for herself. I want to get out of the way," she said.
"Sister Wife" played six times during Sundance, including a special screening for locals at the Park City Library. The film was paired with "Glass House," a documentary about women in Iran.
The most nerve-wracking moment for Orschel came at the penultimate screening, at the Holiday Cinemark in Park City. DoriAnn arrived with six of her 12 children. The makers of "Glass House" agreed to let DoriAnn, Orschel and Fuller field questions after the film.
Seeing the film writ large in a crowded movie theater was strange, DoriAnn admitted. "It was hard to breathe watching myself, all of me, literally voice, words, thoughts, body, heart and soul," she wrote, describing the experience, in a word, as "surreal."
The prospect of meeting DoriAnn and asking questions intrigued audiences, Fuller said, even if they don’t have time to process the experience. Some people wondered if DoriAnn was real because of confusion in how the credits appear on screen. The credits note the performance by Lisa Needham, who sings background music in the short, without specifying her role. Some audiences have mistakenly thought Needham "performed" DoriAnn as an actor.
Others wondered about DoriAnn’s clothes, surprisingly modern, and her youthful appearance. "She’s been very open," Fuller said, and audiences have been respectful.
Audiences in California may get the chance to ask questions. Orschel plans go to the L.A. Film Festival, which runs in Westwood Village June 18 to 28. The women agree that they may still end up in Hollywood. Eventually.