Next week, the global film industry will turn to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. But does Sundance, in turn, look back at the rest of the globe? The answer, of course, is sort of. While press, paparazzi and moviegoers will be tracking the every movement of this year’s American celebs (Josh Hartnett, Charlize Theron and Jack Black, just to name a few), Sundance has increasingly tried to boost its international competition sections, with more prizes and more prestige value for the festival’s global entrants.
While there are very few international breakouts at Sundance, they do exist. Previously, Werner Herzog‘s “Grizzly Man,” critics’ favorites “Live-in Maid,” “I For India,” “13 Tzameti,” docs “In the Shadow of the Moon” and “Manufactured Landscapes,” and of course, John Carney‘s $9.5 million Fox Searchlight sleeper success “Once” have all recently played in the world cinema sections. (Sundances long ago played host to major UK successes such as “Shine” and “Saving Grace.”) So what global discovery will pop this year?
Of the 32 international documentary and dramatic features, here are 10 (plus a couple more) world films and trends that may pull viewers — deservedly — away from this year’s over-hyped Amer-indies.
While cinema from the Middle East has rarely made inroads into the U.S. marketplace, a record seven films from the area will screen at Sundance this year. Programmers say the healthy Middle East contingent wasn’t intentional. “We never go out looking for films from a particular region, but every year an interesting regional out-cropping seems to emerge,” says programmer Caroline Libresco. “It seems to have something to do with a ‘story-telling urgency.'”
Whether turmoil in the region has inspired filmmakers (the program’s most prescient selection may be “Dinner with the President,” which examines life in contemporary Pakistan) or western producers’ interest and investment in the region (the Sundance Institute has a 4-year-old screenwriting lab in Jordan), proof may be in this year’s Sundance selections.
If advanced blog-of-mouth is to be believed, AFI grad Amin Matalqa‘s “Captain Abu Raed” is one of the more attractive prospects. A Dubai International Film Festival premiere, the rare Jordanian movie chronicles an aging airport janitor who is mistaken for a pilot by a group of children and tells them fantastical stories of his adventures. One online fan of the film wrote, “I would say this movie is a bit like ‘Monsieur Ibrahim’ – only more engrossing. It’s an urban romance both humorous and melancholic, and a great antidote to pretentious art-films and sickly-sweet family dramas.” Sounds like just what most U.S. distributors are looking for nowadays.
Also from the region, Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv‘s “Strangers” has been called the most hotly anticipated Israeli film of the year. Developed out of their award-winning short film of the same name, “Strangers” follows a love story between an Israeli man (Amos Gitai regular Liron Levo) and a Palestinian woman (“Paradise Now’s” Lubna Azabal, who won an award for Most Promising Actress at the Jerusalem Film Festival). The two meet and fall in love during the World Cup finals in Germany in 2006, but their affair is soon complicated by the outbreak of war between Israel and Lebanon.
German original Veit Helmer (whose exquisitely photographed break-out feature “Tuvalu” won several international awards, including a best cinematography prize at Slamdance 2000) returns to Park City with the world premiere of his latest, “Absurdistan,” an “inventive and allegorical comedy” about two childhood sweethearts in Azerbaijan who must contend with a village-wide strike of “Lysistrata”-like proportions. Picked up by major German sales company Beta Cinema, “Absurdistan” may be too weird to crossover, but it’s likely to be on critic’s watchlists.
Germany is also presented at this year’s festival with the world premiere of Dennis Gansel‘s “The Wave,” about a high school teacher’s experiment-gone-bad, where his students experience life under a dictatorship. Recently picked up by top-notch international sales company Celluloid Dreams, the film follows Gansel’s successful German comedy “Girls on Top” and his more recent award-winner “Napola,” a.k.a. “Before the Fall,” which had a limited theatrical run in the U.S. in 2006.
Another fanciful tale, Russian director Anna Melikyan‘s slick modern fairytale “Mermaid” should also garner buzz, having already received strong praise out of Russian fests last year. Reviewing out of the Vladivostok Film Festival, Variety‘s Russell Edwards’s wrote the film “has abundant charm and digital trickery in the ‘Amelie’ mold, but also a winning personality all its own.” As a young woman with telekinetic powers making her way through contemporary Russia, diminutive star Mariya Shalayeva has already received accolades (a Best Actress prize at Sochi) and director Melikyan, a veteran commercial filmmaker (whose 2001 short “Poste Restante” won a special jury prize at prestigious Clermont-Ferrand film festival) reportedly gives the film a breathtaking visual palette.
With Sundance often strong on Latin American cinema, this year’s Spanish-language foreign production to watch is Colombian director Carlos Moreno‘s world premiere “Dog Eat Dog,” a gritty crime thriller about a small-town thug who is sent to collect money on behalf of his boss, but decides to keep the cash for himself. Moreno is also an experienced commercial director, whose won international awards for his music video and ad spots.
In the documentary competition, British filmmakers dominate. From narrative filmmaker Marc Evans (“Snow Cake,” “My Little Eye”) comes “In Prison My Whole Life,” an investigation into the arrest and death sentence of Mumia Abu Jamal, which received mixed reviews out of London, while James Marsh (“The King,” “Wisconsin Death Trip”) unveils the world premiere of his “Man on Wire,” a portrait of famed hire-wire performer Philippe Petit, and the heist-like plan he and his team pulled off to walk a wire suspended between the Twin Towers in 1974. Cinephiles will also want to check out veteran British director Isaac Julien‘s “Derek,” a portrait of another UK director, the legendary avant-garde master Derek Jarman.
Also from the U.K., award-winning music video, commercial and shorts filmmaker Chris Waitt‘s world premiere, “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures” chronicles the filmmaker’s love-life, via interviews with ex-girlfriends, medical practitioners and his mother. Recently featured as one of Screen International’s “Stars of Tomorrow,” Waitt has won acclaim for his BBC puppet comedy “FUR TV,” while his cloning short “Dupe” won a BAFTA best short prize.
Last, but definitely not least, the world doc section’s most celebrated film so far is Gonzalo Arijon‘s “Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains,” the harrowing survival tale of the 1974 Andes plane crash (later made into the fiction movie “Alive”), which recently won the top prize at the IDFA documentary festival. Reviewing for Variety, John Anderson called the film a “cinematic tour de force” that “packs a knock-out punch.” At Sundance, Anderson suggested, “the deftly wrought tale will have audiences eating out of its hand.”
Indeed, with more than a dozen international films worth checking out, on top of the many American must-sees, few moviegoers will be leaving Park City hungry for more.