PARK CITY 2000 FEATURE: International Indies Make an Impact; Sundance's World Cinema
by Anthony Kaufman
Flying all the way in from Katmandu, Buddhist monk and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu is quiet and calm -- a striking alternative to the cell-toting, caffeinated Sundance crowds circling around us. While sitting in Starbucks for our interview -- an irony not fully grasped by the highly esteemed Bhutanese lama -- he offers thoughts both wholly different from your typical American independent director (for instance, certain teachings of the Buddha) and yet others which are remarkably similar (worries about raising money).
Khyentse Norbu, recognized at age six as the
It's like many of the best films in the World Cinema section; distinctive, original, and influenced by a uniquely 'foreign' place -- and yet also sharing certain elements with the low-budget American independent spirit. Norbu's first feature "The Cup," for example -- which examines several young monks as they try to bring television to their monastery to watch the World Cup Soccer Finals -- looks and feels like a young upstart's clever debut, shot for next to nothing and praiseworthy for its simple story and the truth of its non-professional cast. (The movie opened in the U.S. on Friday via Fine Line.)
The same could be said for 29-year-old Pablo Trapero's grainy black and white "Mundo Grua" ("Crane World"), an incredibly assured feature debut about Rulo, a poor, pot-bellied middle-aged man trying to hold down a job operating cranes in Buenos Aires. An affectionate portrait, we learn about Rulo's former years as a local rock star, his warm relationship with his delinquent son, and his clumsy, endearing attempts to seduce a local sandwich maker. All the while Trapero strikes powerful chords about working class life in modern Latin America.
Sundance is not committed to World Cinema. Even Sundance Co-Director Geoff Gilmore admitted before one of the screenings, "I don't pretend that the festival is comprehensive enough to be a major international festival." Still, if there is any region that gets a focus here, it's films from Latin America, "Crane World" being the highlight.
Other well-regarded films from down South included Cuban Gerardo Chijona's campy musical fun-flick "Paradise Under the Stars," Brazilian Nigel Noble's naturalistic documentary glimpse into charcoal workers, "The Charcoal People," and Argentinean Mercedes Garcia Guevara's "Hidden River."
Two films from France also stood out, as both uniquely independent and definitively French in tone. Laurent Cantent's Sebastian Fest-winning "Human Resources" (which is rumored to next screen at New Directors/New Films in New York) begins and lingers with a mild premise -- a son takes a white collar job at his father's factory -- but then becomes bracingly emotional in a devastating, final confrontation, packed with issues of family, class, and social status. Similarly, Jean-Pierre Ameris' "Bad Company" charts the journey of a young girl (up-and-comer Maud Forget) from innocence to young love to corruption, but a startling Third Act shift moves Ameris' third feature from typical French adolescent angst into profoundly disturbing territory.
Bobby Barry and Andrew Lee Potts star in the
Coming to the U.S. for the first time with a film, Ameris worried that American audiences might be too "puritanical," finding the film's frank and somber take on adolescent 'l'amour fou' off-putting. "It's a romantic film, and romanticism is more dark than light," he tried to explain. "It's not a dark movie in the way that you would say it is dark."
Dominik and Benjamin Reding, the twin German directors of "Oi! Warning," a stylized, black and white trip into the lives of rural skinheads, also showed concern about the Sundance audiences. But not because of nationality: "The difference is not so much German or American, but if you have the business people in the movie, it's always different. They have a stiff upper lip and they don't want to show off what they think about the movie. Even if they think it's a good movie."
The new "New German" directors must also contend with the shadow of their forbearer -- Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" which won last year's World Cinema Audience Award here. "There's a high pressure on the whole thing here," says Benjamin. "Everybody is trying to discover the new 'Blair Witch,' the new 'Run, Lola, Run.'"
Ironically, Sebastian Schipper, who is in Park City with the Tykwer-produced "Gigantic" -- a tale of three young men spending their last night together in Hamburg -- isn't really threatened by Tykwer's dynamite showing at Sundance '99. "I'm not here to be the next German film that does as good as 'Run, Lola, Run.' Maybe my next one will, or the one afterwards. I don't have to win at all, at once. I want to grow slowly," says Schipper. And he might just do that. Capturing an excellent, evocative score and a foosball scene that has elicited applause everywhere "Gigantic" has played, from Sundance to Shanghai, Schipper is a talent to watch.
Though this writer did not get a chance to see all the rising forces of international independent cinema, Korean "new wave" director Lee Myung-Se's visually explosive thriller "Nowhere to Hide" apparently drew quite a few followers. Also, Norwegian director Hilde Heier's woman-centered drama "The Prompter" -- and a few foreign films headed for distribution all found audiences: Zhang Yimou's "Not One Less" (Sony Classics), Jose Luis Cuerda's "Butterfly's Tongue" (Miramax), Karin Julsrud's "Bloody Angels" (USA Films), Michael Winterbottom's "Wonderland" (also USA), and Christina Andreef's "Soft Fruit" (Fox Searchlight).
The big story in this year's World Cinema section, however, came from the UK, with two World Premieres showing up in the sidebar, Nigel Cole's "Saving Grace" and Suri Krishnamma's "New Year's Day." Cole's debut feature made the big splash this year, a $4 million Fine Line acquisition, making it the biggest deal of Sundance 2000 and this year's "Happy, Texas." And the analogy is apt. "Saving Grace," starring a luminous Brenda Blethyn, is cute, mainstream fun, with a marijuana harvest as the big punch line.
Cole, a veteran commercial director, did not expect the bidding fervor around the film. "If no one comes to see it, if no one buys it, that's fine," he thought before arriving in Park City. "We didn't know. It's an American film festival, this is a small British film; we had no idea." Collecting a slew of business cards from fans and prospective agents post-screening, Cole isn't exactly capitalizing on his newfound fame; he didn't come to Sundance with any new projects. "I have a few half-baked ideas, which now, I'll have a bit more confidence to develop," he says.
Krishnamma -- coming with "New Year's Day" his second feature after the Albert Finney starrer, "A Man of No Importance" -- was a bit more disillusioned about his Sundance experience. When asked about being second priority in the World Cinema section, he admits, "I didn't really know that." He continues, "I have to say when I got here and particularly when I saw the viewing theater -- and the conditions of the projection and sound -- I was a bit nervous. Because it has a fantastic soundtrack and it really didn't do justice to it."
For all the films and filmmakers in the World Cinema section, the importance of Sundance cannot be underestimated. As Krishnamma says, "For any movie, especially a low budget one, to get attention, it's got to work in North America." At Sundance, where all the industry players coalesce, what is an international director to do? "I try to keep my mindfulness, my awareness," says Khyentse Norbu. Maybe that's the best advice for any filmmaker, foreign or domestic.