Location Scouting at Sundance

Susan Gerhard January 30, 2008

There are two approaches, it seems, to bringing people to movie theaters. One employed by the year-round exhibition wing of the Sundance enterprises is to create a boutique movie-going experience near you, one which features many of the comforts of home — exceptionally cushy seating, edible food, and alcoholic beverages. Another, employed by Sundance’s annual festival in Park City, Utah, is to turn filmgoing into an extreme sport, putting as many obstacles as possible between you and the films you might love, purposely withholding satisfaction and thereby creating that force which contemporary filmgoing lacks: the desire to see them.

Impossible-to-get tickets, freezing temperatures, outdoor cues, crowded houses, headaches: This is the Sundance we know and to which we genuflect. This is the Sundance that annually shakes up Hollywood with a surprise sale or two. This is the Sundance that has, by now, figured itself out. The slogan on this year’s catalogue cover, one explained visually by this year’s trailer, is “Film takes place.” The word “place” is emphasized in a trailer that movis, in a “Horton Hears a Who”-by-way-of-Google Maps sequence, from one nested location to another.

Film did take place at Sundance this year. The place was as snowy as ever. The buzz almost as extreme. I have learned to separate myself from the frenzy of that place by staying in Salt Lake City, which, on nights where weather presents itself is its own extreme sports challenge on the highway.

But what was particularly noticeable this year was that the feeling of “place” in each film in Sundance is growing in diversity and richness every year, in parallel with the strength and reputation of its world cinema programming. To associate Sundance with the cliches of American Indiewood is to miss where the festival is headed: across borders.

Probably the best feature I saw — and it was American film, in the Dramatic Competition — dealt with the particularities of place with an acute sense of political humor and visual flair. Alex Rivera, a Peruvian American filmmaker, translated transnational anxieties into vivid sci-fi tableaus that contrasted traditional pleasures with futuristic working-life tortures in the story of cross-cultural exploitation in a time when border crossing is only virtual.

The World Dramatic and World Documentary competitions — categories that last year fed the world “Once,” “How She Move” (!), “Manufactured landscapes,” “In the Shadow of the Moon,” “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten,” and “VHS — Kahloucha,” — this year brought more locations into the frame. “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins’” trips between New York, European, and Sudanese locations — filmed by New Zealander Pietra Brettkelly — stirred the global pot with questions of exploitation within the process of edifying the public on a global crisis. Chris Waitt’s “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures” put a British spin on a genre we believed the U.S.‘s Caveh Zahedi had cornered. Isaac Julien’s art documentary “Derek,” with original oratory by Tilda Swinton, deified the personal bravery and risk-taking work of England’s Derek Jarman. “Up the Yangtze” revisited the Three Gorges Dam project with the best weave of personal tragedy and triumph yet on that much-filmed subject. Two other films people didn’t want to stop talking about were jury-prize-winner “Man on Wire” — an act not to be replicated, when a man moves between the Twin Towers on a wire, and “Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains,” about the Uruguayan rugby team’s crash in the mountains in 1972. I didn’t get to see that last one, but from all accounts, there’s more to the story than the one word generally associated with it.

And speaking of cannibalism: American independent filmmaking, suffering a touch of an artistic slump this past decade, could use the international influences it’s finally having to embrace. Sundance has so much history supporting American filmmaking, but when the only thing talked about in a year of Sundance recollections is the sale of “Little Miss Sunshine,” one can’t help daydreaming of flights overseas. It’s nice to be able to watch this particular festival buy its airline tickets with us. Where to next?