Director Steven Cantor first met art photographer Sally Mann more than 10 years ago when he made his short film Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. At the time, Mann was at work on the series of images that would become her book Immediate Family. The film won awards for Cantor and introduced him as a noteworthy non-fiction filmmaker.
Mann, who lives on a farm in Virginia with her family away from the arts epicenter of New York City, also gained prominence. But controversy soon surrounded her because of the intimate nature of her images and the fact that her subjects were frequently her young children. The gift of critical praise came with the curse of becoming a target for conservatives.
Cantor and Mann have reunited for a second non-fiction film, What Remains, which looks at Mann and her new series of photos focused on death and decay. She remains with her husband on her family farm in Virginia, although her children are now grown.
The filmmaker and the artist sit side-by-side in a large room at a Park City, Utah, arts center frequently used for panel discussions. It's 12 years later, but both admit that nothing has changed when it comes to making and displaying adult artwork of a challenging nature.
They enjoy acclaim for getting What Remains into the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, a tangible proof of its excellence. (See CityBeat's coverage of Sundance on page 22.) What's become tiresome are the constant battles of defending their work.
"Back then it was about politicians shaking their fists and making examples of Mapplethorpe," Mann says with a sigh. "It was about holding back government funds. Today it's quieter. It comes from museum trustees and donors. But the censorship remains."
She changes the subject from censorship to her commitment to classic photographic technique. The digital revolution has not entered Mann's work. She often uses a 19th-century camera, making photos in a way similar to artists a century ago.
What's shockingly new is Mann's treatment of the human body, life itself and — ultimately — death. She might not seek controversy, but it follows her regardless, even to a film festival like Sundance, the undisputed home of independent film and the one spot where you'd expect freedom for artists.
Mann and Cantor are not the only ones at Sundance followed by controversy. The festival program blurb for Mexico City native Carlos Reygadas' stunning avant-garde drama Battle in Heaven describes a girl performing fellatio on a middle-aged driver who works for her father.
That blurb was brought to the attention of administrators at Park City High School, a complex containing the festival's largest venue for screening films. Park City school officials complained about the film, and festival leaders re-scheduled it at another venue.
School officials protested the film sight unseen. If they had watched Battle in Heaven, they might have seen its rich portrait of life in Mexico City, a study of haves and have-nots. Explicit sex is just a small part of the film. It's integral to the story, not gratuitous.
Like Sally Mann, Reygadas experienced controversy in the past with his earlier film, Japón, as well as recent screenings of Battle in Heaven at festivals in Cannes and Toronto. But no festival ever succumbed to pressure and canceled a screening.
Sundance, a place where Battle in Heaven should be seen by sophisticated filmgoers capable of determining its worth, has ceased to be a safe place for artists.
Sundance failed to fight for Reygadas and his film. Nevertheless, he holds no ill will toward the festival or the school leaders who condemned Battle in Heaven.
"This doesn't bother me," he says, speaking at his Park City hotel. "I accept people's right to do what they want to do, to differ from me."
The sticking point is that his film was judged and condemned sight unseen. But Reygadas remains tolerant of his unseen detractors.
"I also respect a person's right to be idiotic," he says.
Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com