Park City, Utah At a festival that features several films with sexual content, including full male nudity and a documentary about bestiality, a Southern Gothic tale that includes the rape of a young girl is causing the biggest stir.
"Hounddog" is the story of Lewellen, a girl played by 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, who is growing up in the 1960s South. She is a free-spirit obsessed with Elvis Presley and has little supervision by her abusive father and alcoholic grandmother.
Even before the first screening of "Hounddog" at the Sundance Film Festival this week, a Christian film critic, citing Dakota's age, decried the movie as child abuse, and Roman Catholic activist Bill Donohue called for a federal investigation.
Dakota is defending her work as well as the movie, and so is the head of Sundance, who said it was courageous for director Deborah Kampmeier to tackle "challenging material." "Hounddog" is entered in the festival's dramatic category.
"It's not a rape movie," Dakota said Tuesday. "That's not even the point of the film."
The disturbing scene lasts a few minutes but is not graphic. There is no nudity, the scene is very darkly lit and only Dakota's face and hand are shown.
Kampmeier said it took her a decade to get the film made, largely because of the rape scene, but cutting it was a compromise she was unwilling to make.
"This issue is so silenced in our society. There are a lot of women who are alone with this story," she said.
"When you're shooting a film, it's the images you line up next to each other that create a story," Kampmeier said. "If you have a hand hitting the ground, Dakota screaming 'stop' and you see a zipper unzip - that creates a rape."
Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of the Web site movieguide.org, claims "Hounddog" breaks federal child-pornography law. He said the law covers material that "appears" to show minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct.
"Even if they're not actually performing the explicit act, we are dealing with a legal issue here," he said.
Baehr said Dakota is being exploited, and that it should be considered an outrage.
"Children at 12 do not have the ability to make the types of decisions that we're talking about here," he said. "If we're offended by some comedian's racial slur, why aren't we offended by somebody taking advantage of a 12-year-old child?"
Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether laws have been broken.
Two other children perform in the film. Cody Hanford plays Buddy, and Isabelle Fuhrman plays a girl nicknamed "Grasshopper."
Kampmeier said she talked with the children and their parents but didn't go into great detail with the young actors about the content.
"I didn't have to articulate to Cody and Isabelle the psychological elements that were going on in this film," she said. "I used images to tell the story. I didn't manipulate these children or explain to these children what was going on."
Dakota said she and Kampmeier talked for months before the film was shot and spent a day painting pottery together and discussing the story.
"It's not really happening," Dakota said of a rape. "It's a movie, and it's called acting. I'm not going through anything. Cody and Isabelle aren't going through anything, their characters are.
"And for me, when it's done it's done. I don't even think about it anymore."
Sundance director Geoffrey Gilmore said independent filmmakers should pursue sensitive subject matter.
"I feel the mission and very nature of what Sundance is about is to provide a platform for that," he said.