Sundance Film Festival - Rebel with its cause restored

This year, the Sundance Film Festival attempted to overhaul its corporate image – and a number of British films showed a spirit of independent daring. Kaleem Aftab reports
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The Independent Culture

Sundance had the Brits to thank as the Utah festival made a concerted attempt to lose its image as a brand heaven and re-focus on discovering film-makers. The movies screened were prefaced with a Sundance ident calling for everyone to "dare to begin again", before ending with the word "rebel" emblazoned across the screen. Only Banksy and Chris Morris seemed to live up to this moniker.

John Cooper, the new festival director, and Robert Redford took a surreptitious swipe at the former festival incumbent Geoff Gilmore when they said it was time for "fresh new blood" and time to focus again on what made Sundance the must-attend festival in the early Nineties, when it was the place to discover the best in American independent cinema.

There was a tacit acknowledgement that the festival had gone too far in its efforts to woo corporate sponsors in recent years. For a time, Sundance had the cognomen "Branddance", when it was impossible to walk through Park City without being hit by some corporation trying to promote its wares.

Nonetheless, there was one brand that was being promoted to high heaven this year, and that was Sundance itself. The landscape for independent films has become brutal in recent years, with less films finding distribution in a crowded marketplace. As such, the role of the festival is changing – it is no longer just about finding the best films and showcasing them. Independent films now need more help than that, and festivals such as Sundance are trying to use their own brand cachet to help platform and distribute work beyond the confines of its own cinemas.

One of the big changes this year was the decision not to have an "opening night" film. The usual habit for Sundance is to have a big, star-studded movie that is not in competition on the first night. This year, they changed tactics by showing two competition entries: Howl, from the US narrative section and Restrepo from the US documentary section. They also showed different films from the programme in eight major cities across America to coincide with the start of the festival.

The attempt to obliterate geographical boundaries also saw three movies playing being released on Video-on-Demand television, available in 40 million homes across America. Some of the shorts were also being shown on YouTube and some feature-length titles have been made available to rent over the internet.

For this to work, Sundance needs to create a brand that is strong enough for people to trust its programmers to make the bottleneck choices that distributors once made, which, at least in theory, used to separate the good from the bad before independent films reached cinemas. On this score card, the festival had a mixed result: as with most recent years, the fiction films on show were mostly weak and the documentaries were very strong.

The initiative not to have an opening night film seemed hollow for those actually in the ski resort, as there was one in everything but name. The only narrative film showing on the first evening was the competition entry Howl, a biopic about the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. There was a major photo call on the red carpet and a party packed with celebrity darlings of the American independent scene such as Spike Jonze and Catherine Keener, there to celebrate the inauguration of Sundance TwentyTen.

Howl set the trend for the American narrative films in that it was not quite as good as it promised to be. The directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, have won Oscars for their documentary work, such as Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk in 1984 and the duo's The Celluloid Closet in 1995. Their first foray into fiction takes an innovative, non-linear approach, which also includes some dazzling animation. But it's a movie of moments, which tries so hard to be creative that it never satisfactorily gets to grips with its subject.

After one screening, its star James Franco said, "I go to Columbia University where Ginsberg went and have a lot of connection with him, but I always imagined that if I would play one of the Beats it would be Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady." Perhaps the star should have been the movie's casting director.

Other American films that disappointed included Spencer Susser's Hesher, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a long-haired thug whose no-nonsense attitude helps a family overcome grief. Natalie Portman does her now well-rehearsed turn as the kooky, troubled love-interest. The Runaways, a film about Joan Jett's 1970s band, was lacklustre. So far there has not been a film that stood out, in the way that Precious did last year.

The focus was on first-time feature-film directors. One of the most anticipated films was Jack Goes Boating, the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman starred in the theatre production in New York, and his celluloid adaptation sees him again play a frustrated limo driver who is encouraged by his best friends to start dating.

Like many of the movies on show, Jack Goes Boating felt like a film that would have been a box-office success a decade or two ago. It seems that the problem with the American indie scene is not the lack of financing available, or difficulty with distribution, but that the films being produced today are simply not good enough.

The same cannot be said of the documentary section, where several films caught the eye. Strangely, the first film to announce a distribution deal at the festival, Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman, was not one of them. The documentary on the US public-school system seemed obvious, which is not an accusation that might be levelled at the internet romance Catfish or Leon Gast's excellent Smash His Camera, a documentary about the infamous Seventies paparazzo Ron Galella, who was sued by Jackie Onassis.

But if it was a touch of rebellion that the festival organisers wanted, they got it from two British film-makers, Banksy and Chris Morris.

The festival started with the buzz news that Banksy had brought his spray can to Park City to promote his excellent debut film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. A selection of movie-related graffiti was painted in and around Main Street, and although the one that elicited the most attention was of a man pointing his video camera at a flower, it was a rat in 3D glasses that was the most ingenious, especially at a time when the independent movies that Sundance wants to champion are being increasingly marginalised by bigger, more expensive blockbusters such as James Cameron's Avatar.

The rebellious nature of Banksy's paintings was apparent as the Park City authorities debated whether they should paint over his new work. One thing that will remain for posterity is his excellent documentary, which cleverly plays on the fact that Banksy, like a comic-book superhero, fights to keep his identity a secret. Chris Morris's Four Lions was by far and away the riskiest film at the festival, though. The comedy focuses on the attempt to create a terrorist cell in Sheffield. After the group's leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) is expelled from a training camp in Pakistan, he and his bumbling cohorts hatch a plan to explode bombs at the London Marathon. Like Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, Four Lions isn't just about shocking the audience – it also had a poignant social message about the dangers of paranoia.

The prolific Michael Winterbottom seems to have a world premiere at every film festival. This time, it was his adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson and Bill Pullman. Faithful to the book and to the traditions of film noir, and filmed in Oklahoma, it's a brutal picture that doesn't shy away from showing violence against women.

The British director Zeina Durra had the world premiere of her New York-set drama The Imperialists Are Still Alive! in the US competition. Watching this was a strange personal experience, given that I'm an associate producer on the project. Starring Elodie Bouchez, it's the story of a romance that blossoms in post-9/11 New York. Leaving it to others to decide on its merits, all I can say is that it's far easier and less nerve-wracking to watch movies at Sundance when you're not involved in the project.

INDIE HITS: FIVE TO SEE FROM SUNDANCE

Catfish
The buzz film at Sundance. This documentary perfectly captures how love blossoms in the internet age, where geography is no longer a boundary for meeting people.

Smash His Camera
Great tales about Jackie Onassis and Marlon Brando are contained in Leon Gast's documentary about the infamous 1970s paparazzo Ron Galella.

Animal Kingdom
This Australian crime drama features a powerful performance from Ben Mendelsohn as an armed robber on the run from a group of Melbourne detectives. The director David Michod shows remarkable assurance.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy's smart, acerbic documentary is not just all about himself, it's also an informative account of the history, development and value of street art.

Buried
The big Sundance sell: Lionsgate paid $3.2m for the rights to this suspense thriller. Ryan Reynolds plays a truck driver buried alive in a box in Iraq with only his mobile phone as company.

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