Screen Tribute to a Mentor's Films

The cynical maxim that "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" never applied to the late Denis Sanders.

Sanders, who died of a heart attack in his sleep last December at the age of 58, was a successful film maker with two Oscars to his credit, but he was also an admired teacher who inspired hundreds of students during his eight years as film maker in residence at San Diego State University.

In a fitting tribute, SDSU has planned The Denis Sanders Memorial Festival, which will showcase a number of his films and help establish a scholarship for graduate film students.

The screenings, at SDSU and the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, will begin today and conclude Saturday. Mayor Maureen O'Connor will commemorate the event by proclaiming Saturday "Denis Sanders Day."

Terry Sanders, Denis' brother and frequent collaborator, said, "Denis would have loved all this. He loved to be the center of attention."

Though Sanders had impressive credentials, he cut a rather unassuming figure. He was short and somewhat dumpy, and one colleague wondered how he managed to move north and south when his feet faced east and west. Sanders also had a tendency to wear unflattering shorts and silly hats. His widow, Sherri, said he was buried with one of the latter.

"The hats were just foils to set up stories or silly lines," said Mike Real, chairman of the SDSU telecommunications and film department and a coordinator of the festival.

"He was absolutely irrepressible in his wit and intelligence," Real said. "Putting together this tribute had been complicated in one way because there is such a sadness associated with someone passing away. Yet, Denis would hate to dampen any party, and he'd hate to have this become a 'tragic' event."

Sanders reportedly told his children that he wanted a Dixieland band to play at his funeral. He got his wish.

Sanders' humor, thirst for knowledge and love of life are what his friends, colleagues and students remember most vividly about him. They hope the festival, which will also have guest speakers, will capture the man and his work.

Sanders, the son of an architect father and artist mother, was editor of his high school paper in Carpinteria and was socially conscious. But, when he started making films, the film itself became the cause, his brother said, "and he dropped out of clubs and things. He was a maverick, one who didn't mind being thought of as odd. He was kind of fearless when he got an idea."

Sanders never intended to be a film maker or teacher, his brother said. He began by studying pre-med at Yale, and turned to film making almost by chance.

"We went to Mexico in 1950 and somehow got the idea to make a movie down there," Terry Sanders recalled in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "We bought a $50 camera and a book on how to make a movie. We also bought books on Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

"We realized two things down there: One, that film making was a lot of fun, and two, that we didn't know much about it."

They remedied the knowledge problem by enrolling in film courses at UCLA. In 1953, they collaborated on Denis' masters thesis, "A Time Out of War." The film, which was shot on scraps of 35-millimeter film at a cost of $2,000, won an Oscar and brought worldwide attention to student film making.

The film, which will be shown Saturday at the museum, uses the Civil War as the backdrop for its anti-war statement.

Robert Lee, a professor and longtime friend who helped Sanders acquire the SDSU position, described him as "concerned with artistic freedom and artistic well-being. He had to do things for himself rather than just for a backer or an audience. He always believed that the artist had to satisfy himself."

In 1959, Sanders brought Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky to the screen in the modernized and Americanized "Crime and Punishment, U.S.A." The film, which will screen Friday at SDSU, also marked the debut of actor George Hamilton.

The Sanders brothers returned to a war theme in the 1963 "War Hunt" (showing Wednesday at the museum), which introduced a 25-year-old Robert Redford. Set during the Korean War, the film made innovative use of music. Jazz musician Bud Shanks got a group together and improvised the quiet, stark score.

"War Hunt" won a British Film Academy Award. Its credits also include a young Francis Ford Coppola, then a UCLA film student, as an assistant. Coppola, who became a friend of Sanders, is one of the honorary sponsors of the festival.

In the early 1960s, the Sanders brothers went their separate ways, but both were eventually drawn to teaching.

"We were both independent film makers, and you sort of have to go from film to film," Terry Sanders said. "You don't really belong to a studio, so teaching becomes a good base. Plus, having been film-school graduates, we would identify with the students and what they were going through."

Denis Sanders also directed a number of TV shows and worked on studio features such as the 1964 "Shock Treatment," which will be shown Friday at SDSU. Colleague Real recalled that the film "had a pretty big-name cast, and Denis said that, on the first day, all he did was shoot the close-ups of Lauren Bacall because he was so nervous."

Lee noted that Sanders "became less and less enchanted with Hollywood. He just felt that it wasn't very exciting, and he didn't feel he had any freedom. He felt that you had much more freedom to be creative and imaginative in educational films."

Sanders left the mainstream to produce "Czechoslovakia 1968," which brought him his second Oscar, this time for best short subject. The innovative film relied on visuals, music and sound to the exclusion of narration, and provided an eloquently simple impression of Czech life during the 50 years leading up to the Russian invasion.

On Thursday, "Czechoslovakia 1968" will screen with two other Sanders documentaries: "Adlai Stevenson: Ambassador" and "Elvis: That's the Way It Is."

Sanders also received a pair of Emmy nominations for his television documentaries "Trial: The City and County of Denver vs. Lauren P. Watson" (1970) and "The American West of John Ford" (1971).

Real, who helped choose the films for the festival, noted that in a way "Soul to Soul," screening at 7 tonight at the museum, is "typical of Denis. It has a more complex structure than you're looking for. It's some kind of hybrid MTV before its time, travelogue and a documentary--almost an anthropological, ethnographic film."

The film focuses on a 1971 concert in Ghana that showcased such talent as Ike and Tina Turner, Roberta Flack and Santana. Sanders intercut concert footage with scenes of native dances and village life to broaden the perspective.

The festival would not be complete, Real said, without "Invasion of the Bee Girls" (midnight Friday at SDSU), a campy horror film.

"Denis loved that film," he said. "He never apologized for it."

Sanders became SDSU's film maker in residence in 1980. Sherri Sanders was a student of his when they met, and the two were working together on a documentary when he died.

"He so loved teaching. He loved to give back what had been given to him," she said. "He really understood what it was like to be a student. He was actually part student, part kid, but he had all that wisdom from experience. He was great with kids and incredibly funny."

"It's so ironic that he died so up, so happy," Sherri Sanders said. "The day he died, he had just gotten word that the project we were working on would get financing. And we were planning to go to Israel. He had just gotten a Fulbright Scholarship.

"He was so full of life, so curious," she said. "I feel so fortunate to have met him. But his work will go on through other people--through me and other students."

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