Fledgling directors gather every year at Sundance, looking to expose their movies to American audiences for the first time. But contrary to popular opinion, those filmmakers don’t just hail from places like New York, Los Angeles, Austin or Memphis. In just the first couple days of the festival, attendees could have caught a Latin American love story, a French-Georgian thriller, and family dramas from New Zealand and Canada, just to name a few.
More than ever before, the Sundance Film Festival is trying to become a destination and launching point for international films. Last year, for the first time, the event expanded its competition to include two 16-film sections devoted exclusively to World Cinema — one for documentary, one for narrative — that run parallel to the more high profile and widely known American dramatic and documentary competitions. (This is the first of four articles devoted to the fest’s international programming.)
If Sundance’s film guide signifies the event’s priorities, this year’s event will be remembered as the first time that World Cinema competitions appeared directly after the U.S. competitions and before the glitzy Premieres section.
“American cinema and international cinema are becoming obsolete terms,” says Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco. “You can see it reflected in the festival,” she explains, listing off numerous nation-bending selections, such as a Cantonese-language Singaporean thriller and an Arabic -Kurdish language documentary, both directed by U.S.-born filmmakers; or a French-made documentary about U.S. photographer William Eggleston. “We have to look at films from around the world,” says Libresco, “because the boundaries are drifting.”
The festival’s international films were selected from a wide crop. Documentaries were whittled down from 448 submissions, while dramatic films were chosen from a staggering 936 movies.
Unlike other domestic fests’ foreign sidebars, which herald Foreign Language Oscar contenders or established favorites from Venice or Cannes, Sundance’s global films mirror the American selections by showcasing discoveries, both neophyte filmmakers and emerging auteurs not yet familiar in North America. And it shows. While a sampling of dramatic films from the first couple days shows promise, there are no near-masterpieces from the bunch.
Mexican director Carlos Bolado brings his second feature “Solos Dios Sabe” (Only God Knows) to the festival, one of the most high-profile world premieres and the follow-up to his acclaimed 1998 debut “Bajo California: El Limite del tiempo,” winner of 7 Mexican Oscars. Acquisitions executives from several major indie distribs attended the sold-out premiere on Saturday at the Egyptian Theater, which also hosted star Gael Garcia Bernal (who appeared in the very same theater at the unveiling of “The Motorcycle Diaries” a couple years back), and the film’s stars Diego Luna (“Y Tu Mama Tambien“) and ravishing newcomer Alice Braga (niece of the famous Sonia Braga).
Not as seductive as its stars, “Solos” follows the emerging love and spiritual test experienced by Damian (Luna), a highly superstitious Mexican journalist, and Dolores (Braga), a young Brazilian woman (Braga) who finds herself stranded in Tijuana without a passport. After Damian comes to Dolores’ rescue, offering to take her to the Brazilian embassy in Mexico City, steamy passions sizzle atop rain-soaked cars and Dolores comes to a spiritual epiphany that irrevocably changes the lovers’ fate.
Bolado – an experienced editor (“Like Water for Chocolate“) – keeps the movie’s visual and aural elements alive, with lots of flowing water and creative sound design. But unlike “Y Tu Mama Tambien” – with its similar cross-Mexico journey and heated sex scenes – “Solos Dios Sabe” loses its way, leaving the hard-won emotional battles of reality for melodramatic cliche and supernatural twist. (“Lovers of the Article Circle,” another film about fate, spirituality and love, captures these themes with more deftness and weight.) Still, there is a lot to be recommended here, including an excellent sequence where the light-skinned Dolores first enters the black populace of Salvador, her ethnic and spiritual homeland. Bolado is a talent to watch: But “Solos Dios Sabe” is not “The Motorcycle Diaries” of Sundance past.
Religion is a common thread in this year’s world selection. In addition to “Solos Dios Sabe,” there are no less than three documentaries that touch on the lives of monks (“Angry Monk,” “The Giant Buddhas” and “Into Great Silence“) as well as “Madeinusa,” a Peruvian film set during Holy Week in a small town, “Son of Man,” an African retelling of the life of Jesus (both of which screen later in the festival), and Julia Kwan’s Toronto fest premiere “Eve and the Fire Horse” (which bowed on Friday).
A sweet, but sketchy debut about cultural and religious assimilation, “Eve and The Fire Horse” is narrated by a 9-year-old Chinese-girl living in Vancouver in the 1970s. The film follows Eve and her older sister as they are introduced to the ways of Christianity. Soon, the girls begin struggling to reconcile their Buddhist heritage with their newfound love for Jesus–Eve, for example, pictures the Buddha and Christ dancing in her dining room. Handled with a light touch, Kwan mixes magical realist splashes and comic touches with heftier themes, but ultimately doesn’t carry the narrative or the ideas to their full potential.
In Toa Fraser‘s “No. 2,” superstitions and Fijian heritage color the story of an elderly Fijian matriarch (Ruby Dee) now living in New Zealand, who wakes up one morning to call for a Sicilian-style banquet for her extended family of hot-headed grandchildren and announce “her successor.” The genre is familiar – dysfunction family get-together – and while the much of the movie felt uneven (especially as the fifth film of the day for this viewer), by the end, playwright-turned-filmmaker Fraser builds to a crowd-pleasing chaotic climax and a sweet and sensitive denouement.
Gela Babluani‘s Georgian-French debut “13 Tzamati,” a Venice Film Fest discovery which also screened over the first weekend, isn’t about cultural heritage or religion, but it is about the mysteries of fate. The film begins with a promising cross of Hitckcockian wrong-man thriller with a gruesome game of death. Photographed in stark black-and-white and strongly composed, the film begins intriguingly, builds to an extraordinarily tense and nail-biting middle, but then stops short of any sort of unexpected or complex conclusion. Still, Babluani deserves praise for an ingenious set-up and a Felliniesque cast of grizzled, crinkly-eyed old faces and raffish, sleazy types. Perhaps Hollywood agents here in Park City will scoop up – Babluani, as well as Bolado, Kwan and Fraser – for their next projects.