One of the world's most famous film festivals takes place in Utah from January 15-25 and as usual, has ignited a flurry of rumors about the film industry and what's going to be hot this year on movie screens around the world. Sundance is notorious for making or breaking film careers and for attracting major movie stars, who are often spotted during the festival wandering the streets of the small ski town in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. But Sundance is much more than celebrity sightings and movie deals. This year, the independent film festival is exploring new territory.
Considered the most prestigious independent film festival in the United States, the Sundance Film Festival is now in its 20th year, and 2004 is the most diverse year yet.
For the first time, documentaries dominate the festival offerings, and there are more films by minority and foreign directors than ever. Festival founder Robert Redford wanted to personally spotlight a film directed by an American Indian. Almost the entire cast is American Indian, and the leading role is played by an African-American. Mr. Redford says the premier of Edge of America at Sundance fulfills the festival's original mission.
"Many years ago, when I was trying to get Sundance started, we had a concept of how we can be inclusive of various groups that were pretty much ignored in the marketplace, ethnic groups, so-called minority groups," explained Redford. "Whatever role Sundance should play, it should certainly be supporting those voices that might not get a chance to be heard. I thought it was about time that the Native Americans be shown in some other way than the back of a nickel."
In all, 46 documentaries have been shown during this year's festival, more than in any other year. One, by director Stacy Peterola, got the festival off to a wet and wild start. Riding Giants is about America's surfing culture.
"The greatest success was being chosen as the film to open up the festival, being a small documentary going against all the fictional films," she said.
In fact, it was against the odds even to appear at Sundance. Geoffrey Gilmore, executive director of the festival, says he knew he was taking a gamble this year.
"Starting the festival with a documentary is a certain degree of risk," he admitted. "We took on a film that I thought would please people. But we did not know that the intense focus on surfing would appeal to a broad audience or if it would prove too narrow of a subject. It seemed to work very well, it seemed to have a tremendously strong reaction, which is great."
Not only was Riding Giants riding high with audiences, the filmmaker struck a major movie deal. A major production company paid over two million dollars for distribution rights.
It's no accident that so many documentaries were in the spotlight this year. Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore says Sundance has helped highlight the increasing diversity and popularity of these films. That was especially evident in the international documentary section of the festival.
The Garden, an Israeli film, is the type of documentary that Hollywood - as well as many foreign producers - would shy away from. It's about two teenage gay male prostitutes living in "The Garden" district of Tel Aviv. Ruthie Shatz says she and her co-director risked their lives in order to follow the teens for an entire year.
"I was once almost killed. Twice, I had a knife at my throat. It's a crime scene. It's not a place for an ordinary human to be in," she said. "This Garden has existed for 30 years now and nobody made a film about it cause it's very difficult to deal with."
Taking risks in the art of filmmaking, honoring groundbreaking work, and giving voice to the unheard are celebrated at Sundance.
Silent Waters is a feature film by Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar. It's the first production from Pakistan to be shown in a film festival. Ms. Sumar says her country doesn't have a film industry and it was a constant struggle to make her movie.
"Pakistan has been going through a very bad phase, it has put down culture, all arts," she explained. "So this film is important in that it brings to light the tensions that we've lived with for the last 20 years or so. And I think that's what art is about, allowing us to talk about ourselves."
In recent years, Sundance festivals have showcased more first-time feature filmmakers, and more works by women and African Americans than ever before. And this year, one of the lowest budget films on record is in the festival.
Still, critics derisively refer to Sundance as "Indiewood"… meaning it's just another version of Hollywood, with major celebrities and major money making deals. Beth Protello, an independent filmmaker, says Sundance actually stymies efforts to get more innovative, low budget and original independent films out to the public.
"Some people would say that independent cinema has been hijacked by Hollywood. We support taking risks in cinema. Indiewood is not really risk-taking anymore," she said.
Not surprisingly, festival director Geoffrey Gilmore disagrees.
"The idea that major actors or celebrities should somehow by their very nature pollute the independent world to me is absurd," he said. "The thing we see much more now than we used to is the crossing back and forth, that someone will make an independent film, then they'll go make a major studio film, then another independent film. We have not really gone in a direction that people have said we have. It's just that those are the films that people find themselves drawing attention to."
Despite the debate over what Sundance accomplishes, there is no question that it has changed the cinematic landscape of America.