Sundance vs. Rotterdam; Differing Styles Bring Forth New International Cinema
by Anthony Kaufman
Beginning only a week apart, the Sundance Film Festival (January 15-25) and the Rotterdam Film Festival (January 21 - February 1) will wake the American and European film industries out of their holiday stupor with the year's first cinematic unveilings. Just a day's travel (over 17 hours, with connections) between Salt Lake City and the Netherlands's second largest city and you too, along with the rare rabid film critic and festival programmer, can experience two distinct takes on new international cinema. "It's like night and day," says indieWIRE contributor Stephen Garrett, who has attended both events three years in a row.
"We play different roles and we fulfill different goals," echoes programmer Caroline Libresco, who specializes in Sundance's world cinema programs and international outreach. "If you take your film to Rotterdam, you have all European eyes on you, and at Sundance, you have all American eyes on you -- hopefully."
At Sundance, the focal point of American independent film, world cinema has a much harder time making its mark. But a look at last year's international pictures -- among them English language breakouts "Whale Rider," "Bend it Like Beckham," "28 Days Later" and foreign lingo favorites "Open Hearts," "Madame Sata," and "Mondays in the Sun" (all with U.S. distributors) -- shows the festival's ability to help these films "infiltrate the American landscape," as Libresco notes.
This year, higher profile entries, including past fest favorites such as "Good Bye, Lenin!" "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and... Spring," and "The Return," and fresher world premieres like Walter Salles' long awaited Che Guevera biopic "The Motorcycle Diaries," look again for a leg up as they plan for their eventual North American releases. These bigger movies, according to Libresco, can also raise the profile of the rest of the world cinema slate.
"I don't think we can radically change what people are at Sundance to do, which is look at the latest crop of American films," she admits. "But at the same time, these international films have a place at the festival."
Rotterdam, on the other hand, is dedicated to showcasing challenging work, often from far-flung developing countries. Last year's winners in the festival's highly touted Tiger competition (for first and second-timers) -- South Korea's "Jealousy Is My Middle Name," Russia's "With Love, Lilya" and Argentina's "Extrano" -- have received only minimal exposure outside of their Holland honors.
The 2004 Tiger competition is similarly diverse, courageous and filled with unknown commodities from Sri Lanka to Sweden, Finland to Peru. Will German director Jan Kruger, who received acclaim for his 2001 short "The Whiz Kids" or Japanese visual artist Yutaka Tsuchiya ("The New God") make the leap to international auteur status with their new feature-length efforts, "En Route" and "Peep 'TV' Show"? Who knows.
And that's what makes Rotterdam similar to Sundance in one respect: both events aim to find unproven talent and champion young filmmakers. "You could argue that Rotterdam is the European Sundance," says Garrett, formerly the film editor at Time Out New York. "It's very much a discovery festival." Rotterdam also shows the kinds of films you won't see anywhere else, from retros of fringe artists (this year Raul Ruíz, Ken Jacobs, Tunde Kelani, and Isaac Julien) to "exploding cinema" like Jang Sun-Woo's Buddhist-Taoist techno thriller "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl" to the Fukasakus' "Battle Royale II: Requiem."
This kind of eclectic programming generates a camaraderie and "crazy love" for the fest, according to Garrett, very different from the scattered, frenetic atmosphere of Sundance. Rotterdam's Co-Director Simon Field explains, "The main program draws together the films of the last year that we believe represent the best and most adventurous in contemporary cinema."
And as much as Rotterdam's mandate is for "adventurous" work, Field also notes that Rotterdam can be of interest for the biz community. "Buyers are coming to look at and make deals on films that might have been overlooked in other festivals," he says. Past films to be acquired after Rotterdam include "Noi Albino" and "Japon." "In addition, buyers come to look at projects in the Cinemart seeking out pre-buys." This year's CineMart (Rotterdam's concurrent co-production market) includes the latest work by such international mavericks as Kim Ki-duk ("The Isle"), Lou Ye ("Suzhou River"), and Bent Hamer ("Kitchen Stories").
But unlike Sundance, Rotterdam's idea of a flashy commercial world premiere is Catherine Breillat's return to "Romance"-style alienation, sex, and Rocco Siffredi, with her latest "Anatomy of Hell." Publicists are scant in the drab and dreary Dutch port down and celebrity-sightings are rare. If you prefer to party with Hungarian master Bela Tarr, Belgian feminist Chantal Ackerman, or smashed Japanese action directors, instead of stuffing like sardines Park City-style to catch a glimpse of Christina Applegate, than Rotterdam is the place for you.
The Netherlands fest isn't all esoteric art-cinema, however, and Sundance isn't all crowd-pleasing glitz. In fact, this year's festivals share a few titles: among them, Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and... Spring," Salvatore Mereu's lyrical Italian debut "Three Steps Dancing," Congolese filmmaker Zeka Laplaine's "Le Jardin de Papa," and "The Missing," the directorial debut from Tsai Ming-liang actor Lee Kang-sheng. And this year's Sundance slate is particularly eclectic, diverse, and dare I say, Rotterdamian, with additional entries from Guatemala, Peru, Burkino Faso, India, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Sundance is also trying more and more to cater to its foreign counterparts. For the first time this year, the festival has instituted an additional 18 sales screenings especially for buyers, foreign and domestic, so they don't have to beat the crowds. "Our festival has been called one big market, and people coming from abroad are not used to that," says Libresco. "They're used to a designated market space and a festival space, and we're trying to go step-by-step."
Does that mean that Sundance will introduce a parallel market in the future? "There's a possibility that next year we'll have access to theaters at Kimball Junction down the hill, with more screenings for buyers and press," says Libresco.
This year's festival will also bring in a group of 50 working European producers to host a panel on international co-productions and meet with American producers. They've also formed a new collaboration with Berlin's European Film Market, allowing Sundance films to sign up at a discounted price.
Despite such attempts to cater to the foreign market, Sundance still has a ways to go. "Although Sundance is programming more international cinema, they are still essentially oriented to U.S. films and the scope and adventurousness of their world cinema programming is far behind our own," says Rotterdam's Field. "But it is understandably not their priority."
"I'm not going to pretend that we're always the best place to showcase a film," admits Libresco. "There are some films that will be served better by premiering in a European marketplace, and I wouldn't want to take that from them. But one of our goals is to expand what audience and buyers will fall in love with and see as viable fare."