Three minutes of fame at Sundance

20:41, Jan 27 2013

The week Wellington's David White turned 30, his three-minute short documentary made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

Not a bad way to mark the passing of time, at all.

It's just after 1.20pm when I meet up with White at the Marriott in Park City, Utah, which doubles as HQ for the Sundance Film Festival. The weather for the past week has been perfect: barely above freezing, but clear and crisp enough to get you sunburnt.

This is a source of joy for White (pictured here standing to the right of Morgan Spurlock and three in from Daryl Hannah). He tells me snow terrifies him. He relays a story that his friend told him about last year's Sundance, when a blizzard hit about 11pm, reducing visibility to about a foot in front of your face. A theatre full of strangers emerged from a screening after midnight and needed to get to a nearby bus stop. To do so they had to each place their arms on the shoulders of the person in front of them and walk gingerly out into the night.

"That's just my worst nightmare," White says.  

We've jammed a little time in to talk. White is flying out the next day, en route to London to start at the National Film and Television School in London. In his particular concentration they accept only 15 students at a time. It is the middle Wednesday of Sundance and White starts school in London on the coming Monday.


White began as an actor before moving behind the camera. His most known work to date was as a producer on the Shihad documentary Beautiful Machine, which made its debut in New Zealand cinemas last May. Three months later White was screening his short documentary I Kill at the Melbourne International Film Festival, when a representative of Morgan Spurlock's Focus Forward Films approached him and his collaborator Paul Wedel to produce a three-minute documentary to appear at the Sundance Film Festival.

Focus Forward runs a short documentary competition, simultaneously to commissioning filmmakers from around the world to produce stories about innovators who are changing the world. They then present these short films in clusters at international film festivals. "It's just a ridiculous honour," White says of being chosen. All they had to do was get Focus Forward to approve their idea and the funding was supplied to them to make it.

What Spurlock is doing to make documentaries more accessible to the average movie-watcher is inspiring, White says. All of the short Focus Forward documentaries are available online as soon as they have premiered; they have had 11 million views on YouTube and been shared more than 18 million times.

White and Wedel came upon a doozy of a story for their Sundance debut, the Cleanest Pig (go watch!). The movie centres on Auckland scientist Bob Elliott, who came up with the idea 54 years ago that you could solve type A diabetes by replacing human cells in the pancreas with pig cells. It's a long and unpredictable story, filled with heartache, joy and a surprise turn from Tim Shadbolt as an unlikely saviour of the project.   

Shadbolt's part in the movie, White says, played to hearty chuckles in the audience. Some things in life are just universal.

We spend a while shooting the breeze about being at Sundance. A huge facet of the festival is simply business, with film distributors looking to buy the hottest independent movies. White says that he was talking to a film producer who said that after he debuts a film at Sundance he turns his phone off for an hour. The executives in the audience all retire to a bar afterward and try to gauge the others' interest in the movie, looking to read through each other's poker face, with the isolation and the altitude heightening the mania, slowly driving the price up.

White's short film made its debut at the same time as Alex Gibney, proclaimed by Esquire to be the most important documentarian in the world, was in Park City with his new Wikileaks film, We Steal Secrets. Gibney told White that he loved his movie and he relays that detail to me with enthusiasm. He also had dinner with Darryl Hannah while he was here. Which is pretty cool.

Sundance is a peculiar and broad beast. It runs for 11 days. White is here off his own bat largely, with some assistance from the New Zealand Film Commission and the United States embassy in Wellington.

"It's important to be here. Otherwise the film goes out with no one to represent it," White says.

He can't really put in words if being at Sundance is different from what he expected. The only certainty, he says, is that your body absorbs alcohol at a different rate at altitude. Every festival White goes to, he says, he makes a link and then works on keeping the connections up over time. You never know where the benefit will show up long term.

Our coffee cups are empty. We both have to go. Whiteis going skiing. You could throw a rock from the main streets in Park City and hit a ski field. "It may cost a fortune, but I figure while I'm here, why not?"

My own stay in Utah ends tomorrow. I've been here a while. Too long, maybe.

I would've seen 30 movies in 12 days by the time this goes live. That's enough, right?

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