Sundance's Global Initiatives: Park City Fest Strives for Int'l Stature
by Anthony Kaufman
Two years ago, when programmers of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival announced an unprecedented 26-film World Cinema sidebar, indieWIRE declared, "Park City Goes Global for 2003." Did we speak too soon?
With two new competitive sections dedicated to World Cinema for 2005, the latest Sundance event is drawing increased international viability. After years of talk about expanding the significance of the festival's foreign component, the 21st Sundance has finally gone out on a limb -- at least they think so. Whether world cinema actually stands out among the high profile, star-studded American specialized and indie films remains to be seen.
"By creating these competition sections, we are able to use the platform of the festival to really expose these works to the U.S. marketplace," says Sundance programmer and Documentary Film Program Director Diane Weyermann. "It's a way of elevating them on par with the U.S. competition sections."
But by creating an international competition, ironically, the festival has shrunk the number of foreign narrative films shown at the festival from 28 last year to 16 this year, in order to "bring more focus," explains Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco. However, the number of documentaries has increased from 9 to 12.
"It was a hard choice for us, but we believe this will allow the industry and the press to not feel overwhelmed," says Libresco.
Adds Weyermann, "One of the difficulties is that people come to the festival and primarily feel compelled to see the films in the American competition, so the world cinema didn't get as much exposure as we think it's going to get now."
But with major competition from the increasingly reputable Berlin International festival and market in February, it may be difficult for Sundance to program the kind of flashy foreign titles that can draw the spotlight. Still, Libresco believes that Sundance isn't contending with Rotterdam or Berlin, and that ideally, a film will travel from Park City and then onto European fests.
Like Sundance's American narrative competition, the dramatic entries in the world cinema race are dominated by work from first- and second-time feature filmmakers. Filmgoers looking for work from major foreign directors and art-house distributors will need to check out Sundance's Premieres section. "One of the things we are trying to do is create new talents," says Libresco. "This will not be a section for auteurs and masters."
For U.S. distributors and American audiences looking for more mainstream fare in the world cinema lineup, the year's most accessible foreign films include debuting Aussie director Greg Mclean's visually stunning horror-thriller "Wolf Creek" and British actress-turned-producer Gaby Dellal's family drama "On a Clear Day," starring Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn. While both films may disappoint haughtier critics, industry-ites will likely flock to see the only two English-lingo films in the narrative program.
Argentina and South Korea stand out as the section's most represented countries, with two films each. Argentina's economic crisis serves as the backdrop for both films from the South American country: Eduardo Pinto's "Amores Perros"-style world premiere "Palermo Hollywood" is a kinetic, gritty thriller about two petty-criminal youngsters who become involved in a kidnapping gone awry, while first-timer Jorge Gaggero's funny and poignant San Sebastian premiere "Live-In Maid" follows a wealthy divorcee who loses her fortune and struggles to retain her long-devoted housekeeper.
While Latin America has often been a mainstay of Sundance's World Cinema section, the festival's efforts to represent a more diversified selection among fewer titles have cut down the Hispanic and Latino flavor. The only other Spanish-lingo title is Mexican director Sebastian Cordero's suspenser "Cronicas," which won the 2002 Sundance NHK Award for best Latin American screenplay. It's also one of the only international films already attached to a U.S. distributor, Palm Pictures.
According to Libresco, both Korean entries represent intimate singular visions by budding young talents: Lee Yun-Ki's debut "This Charming Girl," which was a hit at Pusan, is a minimalist portrait of a female post-office worker, and Park Chul-su's world premiere "Green Chair" is a highly provocative story of l'amour fou between a housewife and an underage boy.
Asia is also repped by "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol," a lavishly-shot action film about antelope poaching in Tibet directed by returning Sundancer Lu Chuan ("The Missing Gun") and Japanese veteran Jun Ichikawa's "Tony Takitani," a Locarno special jury prize winner, which examines the relationship between a technical illustrator and his clothes-obsessed wife based on a short story by Haruki Murakami.
Films from the European Union are largely repeat performers from the Toronto International Film Festival: Joaquin Orstrell's Spanish sex romp "Unconscious"; Susanne Bier's war-themed family drama "Brothers"; Maren Ade's German gem "The Forest for the Trees"; and Ziad Doueiri's "Lila Says," his follow-up to "West Beirut" about a French sexpot's flirtation with an Arab boy in Marseilles.
Aside from Doueiri's film, France has been overlooked by Sundance's programmers, represented elsewhere only in Angolan filmmaker Zeze Gamboa's French-Portuguese co-production "The Hero," which screened in Toronto's Planet Africa sidebar.
Europe's only foreign-language world preem is "Stranger," a portrait of a young pregnant woman from Polish director Malgosia Szumowska, whose grim previous feature "Happy Man" was nominated for Europe's Discovery of the Year award in 2000.
While Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco says the festival hopes to "build more and more towards world premiere status, we won't compromise the quality of the selection." Only 6 out of the 16 narrative films are world premieres.
In that way, Libresco says the World Cinema program is about showcasing "excellent films," even if they've shown at prior fests. "It's our job to elevate the films that were overlooked at other festivals," says Libresco. And while industry-ites might find such titles familiar, she adds, "the rest of the U.S. audience knows nothing of Toronto."
In the World Documentary section, only one film is hailing from the Toronto fest, Canadian entry "Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire," a chronicle of the U.N. commander's ill-fated attempt to stave off the Rwandan genocide. "It's a story that will make people's draws drop," says Weyermann. "This film has a major chance for substantial exposure here."
In fact, world documentaries may actually draw more attention than the narrative works. With the premiere of German auteur Werner Herzog's latest "Grizzly Man," which follows late grizzly bear enthusiasts Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, the section gets a boost through major name-recognition, which is lacking in the foreign dramatic competition.
Sundance's World Doc program will also showcase the world premiere of Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez's "El Immortal," a story of a family torn apart by the conflict in Nicaragua. A former recipient of the Sundance Documentary Fund, Moncada returns to Sundance after her astonishing debut "The Passion of Maria Elena" screened in Park City in 2003.
Other world premieres include the alluring "Unknown White Male," a portrait of a man who woke up one morning in Coney Island with no memory; "Odessa Odessa," a examination of the Jewish Diaspora, and "Yang Ban Xi - The 8 Modelworks," a look at propaganda films during China's Cultural Revolution.
While the festival received a number of submissions about war-torn Iraq, Weyermann says Sean McAllister's "The Liberace of Baghdad," about a famous Iraqi pianist, stood out among the pack. "We have a couple of films about the gravity of conflict around the world," she explains, "and while I do think it's important and they were programmed for that reason, they're all excellent films," she continues, pointing to Venice 2004 winner "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia," a poetic look at the devastation of the Chechen war, from Finnish veteran Pirjo Honkasalo ("Fire-Eater").
"We're trying to do something more concrete and meaningful for world cinema and I think it's important that this work be exposed, more so now than ever," continues Weyermann. "Because people need to understand more about the world in which we live in and the boundaries beyond this country. Some of the documentaries deal with war and conflict, and there is a seriousness that we're all faced with in this day and age," she says. "Look at the situation."