Preview: Sundance London

The heyday of American indie cinema is long gone – but as the Sundance Festival visits these shores, Jonathan Romney detects life in the old dog yet ...

Later this month, the legendary Sundance Film Festival comes to Britain for the first time, with a four-day jamboree of film and music at London's O2 arena. Cynics might say it's two decades too late. For years the words "American indie" carried an almost magical charm in film circles; today many feel that the US independent scene is a demure shadow of its once pugnacious self.

In its glory period, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, American independent cinema bubbled with energy and innovation, its history a succession of startling breakthroughs and emergent movements. That history was for a long time virtually synonymous with Sundance, a history that properly began when Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took over the management of the US Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in 1985 (the festival was officially renamed Sundance in 1991). What we now think of as the independent spirit in US film-making goes back decades – at least as far as John Cassavetes's Shadows in 1959 – but the film-makers who emerged at Sundance really defined the US independent style of the late 20th century. Theirs is a history of sudden revelations and surprise breakthroughs, taking in names such as the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino. The Sundance era brought movements and generational trends: the birth of New Queer Cinema, the rise of popular documentary, several waves of women film-makers (most enduringly, Kelly Reichardt and Lisa Cholodenko), a short-lived but powerful explosion of African-American talent. And there was the occasional genre-bending one-off (Brick, Donnie Darko ...).

A series of critical and popular hits helped put Sundance on the map: the Coens' Blood Simple in 1985, Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986), Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), and, in 1992, Reservoir Dogs, the film that reshaped the audience's, and the industry's, ideas of what indie genre films could be. More than just showing films, Sundance cemented a reputation as a meeting place for film- makers, audiences and industry people; it also played a key part in developing films and nurturing careers through its labs. Its reputation may fluctuate, but, says US critic Amy Taubin, a regular visitor since 1989, it's still an essential date: "Sundance doesn't always make the right calls, but it does seem absolutely necessary, in the way Cannes is necessary, if you're going to be aware of the state of American independent film."

Today there are still discoveries, but the breakthroughs aren't coming thick and fast as they once did. It's been a while since we saw a new US film-maker as challenging as social satirist Todd Solondz (Happiness), as individual as the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), as politically challenging as Spike Lee. In fiction, too much is simply good-natured or passive-aggressive. The big news (in a small way) in the last decade was the strain of diffident micro-budget fiction known as "mumblecore" (particularly associated with the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas). Some names associated with this trend have established themselves in the mainstream. The Duplass brothers' imminent Jeff, Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel, has its charm but is almost militantly insubstantial. Then there's hyphenate of the moment, writer-director-actress Lena Dunham, whose likeable if hardly revelatory comedy, Tiny Furniture, is released here this week; she's now made a TV series for HBO, Girls, under the aegis of Judd Apatow.

It's natural that the best talents should be absorbed by the mainstream. Everyone, sooner or later, wants to work on more than a pittance: Steven Soderbergh once commented: "What we should all want is for the smartest directors around to have the resources that the dumb directors have." But the days may be gone when the smartest turned instinctively to film. Once, everyone fresh out of high school wanted to make the next Pulp Fiction. Now, says Amy Taubin: "If you were 18 years old and an enormously creative person, you would be interested in other media, not the movies. The people who still want to be film directors think, 'I'll make Hollywood lite – then I'll be able to make Hollywood heave'."

The people behind Sundance beg to differ: they believe the US indie scene is as strong as ever. John Cooper, the festival's director since 2009, feels American fiction film is in rude health: "I've seen the bar raised in the past 10 years. I've seen independent film-makers become better in general – better storytellers, more inventive with craft."

While critics lament a dearth of innovation in fiction, it's generally agreed that the documentary scene is consistently strong. One title widely tipped as unmissable – you can catch it at Sundance London – is Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In, by all accounts a politically radical and hugely provocative analysis of the US "war on drugs". Cooper says documentarists are raising their game: "With documentaries, we haven't even got there yet, we're on the verge of an important movement."

Fiction features continue to yield excitement, but in bursts rather than entire waves. Last year, Sundance brought us Sean Durkin's extraordinary Martha Marcy May Marlene, and now Durkin's production partner, Antonio Campos, has made Simon Killer: like Durkin's film, it's said to be very Euro-flavoured. And this year's winner of Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for drama is reportedly as eye-opening a debut as we've seen in some time: Behn Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, about the world as seen by a small girl living in the Louisiana marshes.

You'll have to wait till other UK festivals bring us Beasts; meanwhile Sundance London offers a diverse taster menu. Even if it's only to take a sceptical reading of the indie sector's vital signs, Sundance London will be worth a visit – and you won't need parkas against the Utah snow.

The Sundance kids

African American cinema

Spike Lee started an explosion with She's Gotta Have It in 1986. But the often-overlooked godfather of new African-American cinema is Charles Burnett (1977's black-and-white realist study Killer of Sheep). Female directors made epoch-marking features such as Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), for one.

Signs of life: Hipster-experimentalist Terence Nance is in Sundance London with his freewheeling, self-reflexive, animation-laden An Oversimplif-ication of Her Beauty.

 

New queer cinema

This wave shook things up in the 1990s thanks to Todd Haynes (1991's triptych Poison), producer Christine Vachon, and film-makers Tom Kalin (Swoon) and Gregg Araki (Totally F***ked Up). Lesbian breakthrough film was Rose Troche's 1994 comedy Go Fish. All of which paved the way for hits such as Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right.

Signs of life: Cheryl Dunye made jaws drop in Berlin this year with her Mommy is Coming.

 

Slackerism

Since Richard Linklater's 1991 Slacker, much US indie film was about goofing off, not least by the voluble Kevin Smith (Clerks). Opinions divide on the "mumblecore" generation.

Signs of life: Lynn Shelton follows her porn-bromance comedy Humpday (2009) this summer with Your Sister's Sister, with Emily Blunt and mumblecorist Mark Duplass, co-star of Sundance London romcom Safety Not Guaranteed.

 

Digital breakthroughs

US indie mavericks challenged celluloid in the late 1980s, when Sadie Benning and Michael Almereyda tried the Pixelvision toy camera. The Blair Witch Project (1999) worked genre horror and the internet to pioneering effect.

Signs of life: 2010 faux-or-no docu Catfish is one of the numerous projects thriving on the web.

 

The eccentrics

Auteurs who don't fit in any bracket: from master misanthrope Todd Solondz (Happiness), to patrician dandy Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), whose long-awaited return is Damsels in Distress. Then there are the film/art crossovers, such as cult narcissist Vincent Gallo.

Signs of life: Jake Schreier and Christopher D Ford cheered Sundance 2012 with the futuristic buddy film Robot and Frank.

 

Sundance London is at the O2, 26-29 April (sundance-london.com/ 0844 858 6754). Lena Dunham's 'Tiny Furniture' is out now. Whit Stillman's 'Damsels in Distress' is released on 27 April. 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home' and 'Your Sister's Sister' are out later this year

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week