If there were any question about the Sundance Film Festival’s primacy in the independent world, just look to 2006, when no fewer than 40 of the festival’s premieres ended up in movie theaters.
Granted, there’s a big difference between breakaway hit “Little Miss Sunshine,” which took in more than $60 million at the box office and seems certain for Oscar accolades, and the less conspicuous features and documentaries that were channeled through the art-house pipeline.
But from such widely released sleepers as “The Illusionist” and “An Inconvenient Truth” to such acclaimed fare as “Half Nelson” and “Old Joy,” Sundance still can claim responsibility for a significant chunk of the art-house market.
How much Sundance, which runs through Jan. 28, determines the course of the indie world (or vice versa) is a matter of debate, but there’s little doubt that the festival remains the most reliable crystal ball for the art-house scene. With that in mind, what can moviegoers expect from Sundance ’07?
“If there’s any one overriding theme this year, it’s the sense of optimism that runs through many of the films — the theme of surviving adversity with a little bit of hope,” programming director John Cooper says. “And that’s not really the hallmark of the independent film traditionally, which has always ridden the darker side of life. But I saw a switch this year into films that are lighter in tone, at least in that they’re about overcoming struggle and getting to the other side.”
To that end, Cooper cites the dramatic competition feature “Grace Is Gone,” in which John Cusack plays a father who learns that his wife has died in Iraq and must adjust to this new reality with his two young daughters, and another competition entry, “Never Forever,” which stars Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”) as a woman who paradoxically tries to save her marriage by having an affair. Even two films about intolerance in the church, the Spectrum entry “Save Me” and the documentary competition film “For the Bible Tells Me So,” find some revelation and redemption in religious struggle.
“I’m not sure that ‘optimism’ is the right word,” festival director Geoffrey Gilmore counters. “But I’d echo John’s sentiment that this year represents a big leap for independent film in that we’re not looking at that dark independent vision we had in years past. The films have a much more engaged, more expansive view of what the world is because people are coming to grips with issues and problems rather than seeming alienated from it all.”
Says Cooper with a laugh: “We’ve gotten away from the nihilistic youth stories. I remember when I first started, the films were all about driving across the desert with a gun in the glove compartment. You stopped at a diner, there was a pretty waitress, and you knew there was going to be a gun somewhere that was going to pop out at a certain point. But filmmakers are now getting very savvy, and they know that it’s not good enough just to make a movie any longer. It has to be something that’s fresh.”
The process of paring the staggering and record-breaking 3,287 submissions down to the 122 features showcased at the festival wasn’t an easy one for the programming staff. Aside from the arduous process of getting through all of them, the festival strives to achieve what Gilmore calls “about 20 different issues of (what constitutes) balance,” from diversity of style and subject matter to numerous perspectives on the world. Gilmore and Cooper have hired a staff that they stress not only knows film but knows how to program a festival with a strong sense of the overall picture.
“Most of us don’t find 125 films a year that we really love,” Cooper says. “So for us, we have to keep an openness to the material. When you whittle things down, you usually end up with 20 more films than you need in each section, and that’s when we start to look at them more closely and enter into a process where we just start talking.”
“We don’t have set criteria,” Gilmore adds. “What we try to do is to be open about how the films work, as opposed to trying to force them into categories. And you try to be open to the range of different filmmaking going on, particularly work that’s fresh and new, or you end up being dismissive of things.”
Sundance ’07 will ask viewers to be open-minded too, because the fest is set to feature a host of potentially controversial films in its competition section. Chief among them is “Hounddog,” writer-director Deborah Kampmeier’s provocative follow-up to 2003’s “Virgin.” The film, set in the American South in the ’60s, stars Dakota Fanning as a deeply troubled 12-year-old who seeks solace from abuse through the blues. The screenplay raised eyebrows with an explicit rape scene, which the filmmakers insist was done tastefully and with the actress’ mother present. But it’s still shocking as Fanning switches to a role that recalls child stars Brooke Shields in 1978’s “Pretty Baby” and Jodie Foster in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.”
But “Hounddog” isn’t alone in drawing pre-festival gossip for its sexual aberrance. Robinson Devor, who’s appeared in the festival with his acclaimed fiction films, 2000’s “The Woman Chaser” and 2006’s “Police Beat,” returns with the competition documentary “Zoo.” It concerns the real-life case of a Washington farmer who died from a ruptured anus after being violated by a horse. (Don't worry; the offending footage is not included in the film.)
Then there’s the odd case of “Teeth,” a dramatic competition entry about a virginal Christian teen who discovers during a moment of unwilling violation that her body has an unusual defense mechanism.
Gilmore defends the festival’s commitment to backing provocative material. “If you show films that are melodramatically mainstream and speak to people’s hearts, you should also show films that are cerebrally challenging and explore moral and value issues,” Gilmore says. “I don’t find it difficult to engage people with movies that are challenging. I know we get attacked for it sometimes, but oftentimes those attacks underscore what the importance of a film festival or any kind of artistic representation should be, which is to challenge the values and ideas that people have.”
He adds: “A film like ‘Teeth’ is going to surprise people because it’s fun, not just edgy. And ‘Zoo’ is almost an experimental work. It’s a challenging film to think about, but it’s also a jaw-dropping, are-you-kidding-me kind of story.”