The 2006 Sundance Film Festival proved to be a special occasion for many reasons. The Sundance Institute, which has been backing the festival for many years, celebrated its 25th anniversary this January. The Institute has had a premier role in the discovery of talented young filmmakers and in supporting numerous independent projects. At the festival opening press conference Artistic Director Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance Institute President and Founder, and Festival Patron Robert Redford, and Nicole Holofcener, the director of the opening night movie, Friends with Money, spoke about the past 25 years recollecting fond memories and successes. As an answer to the media charges concerning the commercial nature of the festival both Gilmore and Redford emphasized that in spite of the rapid growth and the major commercial success of the festival, its basic principles have remained the same. They still look for new and original voices in their selections and not for the commercial potential of the film. Their main criteria are diversity, originality, risk taking, novelty and not the number of celebrities appearing in the movie. „Nothing has changed since the day we started. We allow filmmakers to speak for themselves. We are not about parties and not about glamour.” – said Robert Redford.
Both the festival (which is only 22 years old) and the Institute have contributed to the discovery of numerous talents and have provided ground for gifted filmmakers left outside the studio systems of Hollywood. With the support of the Institute many directors have been able to realize their original and uncompromising projects. Most apparently the festival and the Sundance Institute helped the emergence of women filmmakers to gain acceptance. A whole new generation of female directors helped to change the roles enforced on women by Hollywood and to discover such talents as Lili Tomlin, Parker Posey or Maggie Gyllenhaal to name but a few. So it was quite appropriate to choose Nichole Holofcener’s film starring Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusak and Frances McDormand to open the festival with. Coming from the Sundance Lab, where she mastered the arts and crafts of script writing and directing, Holofcener herself is a real ‘Sundance Kid’.
The opening movie is not only a statement but also a fine example of independent filmmaking in the hands of a woman. Holofcener, whose short film also premiered at Sundance a few years ago, tackles the delicate question of friendship and money. Her Friends with Money focuses on a group of female friends, most of them living in marriages that do not seem to make any of them really happy. Still they seem to be more balanced and much better off than their only single friend, played by Jennifer Aniston. Aniston’s character appears to be such a failure in every aspect of her life that she is bound to find happiness in a most unlikely way. The film is not only a survey of women’s lives but also tells a lot about the male characters. However, the female characters are more finely tuned than the rather stereotypical and negatively pictured male characters. Holofceners’s observations are clear, though it is difficult to say something new, especially in the all very trendy flow of films centered around single women trying to find happiness. In spite of all the flaws and clichés it would have been difficult to find a more appropriate and entertaining opening night movie.
Rather daring and tackles delicate issues of religion, traditions and female sexuality Jocelyne Saab’s Dunia: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes. Not only is it rare to see female directors coming from Arab cultures but Saab chooses to touch upon issues real ‘hot potatoes’. She inspects sexuality, especially female sexuality and the male attitude towards it in all its complexity. She reveals a world full of contradictions, where religion and traditions go hand in hand to fight against progressive thinking, and where women are still judged by double standards. It is a culture of erotic literature going back in centuries and the fine art of belly dancing but also of female circumcision and oppression. Beautifully acted and photographed, Saab’s film is a real gem of world cinema.
It seems to be a tendency at Sundance that every year there are a handful of films, which are not preceded by much PR fuss. They just come quietly and enchant anybody as did the Station Agent, or Me, You and Everyone we Know, for example. This year one of these quiet newcomers is So Yong Kim’s In Between Days. It is a charming tale of friendship and love through the eyes of a teenage girl who has to face the difficulties of entering into adulthood in a new culture, which language she barely speaks. The film is more of a teenage video diary capturing the everyday events of a young girl’s life yet it is very human and precise in its observations. With her minimalist work So Yong Kim clearly demonstrates that less is often more.
Hilary Brougher’s drama, Stephanie Daley, is also a story about a girl in her late teens, who is accused of murdering her newborn baby. Since she completely denies she is made to see a forensic psychiatrist, played by the ever brilliant Tilda Swinton, who also took the producer’s credit for the film. The psychiatrist, heavily pregnant herself after the tragic loss of her first child, is trying to dig deeper in to Stephanie’s mind to unveil the truth, while herself is to face many painful memories of her unburied past. Anything but easy it is for both of them, the therapy still brings some sort of bitter relief and comfort for the two women.
Only seven years old but already a real princess, Olive, the aspiring beauty queen, is the apple of the family’s eyes. So when she gets the chance to take part in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant the whole family (quite a company of losers, to say the least), sets out to California in a rundown family wagon. Michael Arnd’s Little Miss Sunshine takes a humorous approach to the failure of the American Dream, represented through the chubby little Olive and her whole family. With all their flaws, this strange little company, shows exceptional humanity and unity against the superficiality of these beauty contests and in fact of our society. Little Miss Sunshine is a real family entertainment and a must for those who think that Napoleon’s ill advised wardrobe and dancing skills in Napoleon Dynamite cannot be topped.
Speaking about beauty and our image- or rather image obsessed world, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, which examines eating disorders, will surely make everyone think. Thin follows four women between the age of 15 - 30 striving to reconcile with their body image and fight anorexia nervosa. The film draws attention to the fact that the number of people, especially young girls, suffering in eating disorders is growing at an alarming rate. Although the role of the media cannot be denied, it would be too easy to blame everything on television and supermodels. In most cases the problem stems from deeper and the answer often lies in the family relations and parental behavior. Since the problem is in the mind this obsessive behaviour, according to the film, is anything but easy to cure.
This year women triumphed in genre films too. The best example is Neil Marshall’s horror, The Descent, featuring an all female cast. Though the horror line, the story of a cave expedition going fatally wrong, is by no means original, the dynamics of the relationship between the six women adds a unique dimension to the film. In his answer to the all male cast of Dog Soldiers Marshall explores the differences how men and women react to danger and threat. While the outer threat unites men, women tend to turn against each other and their emotional reactions became harsher blaming each other and splitting up into pairs or individuals, which makes them more vulnerable. Most of their attempts are bond to fail due to their inability to overcome jealousy and rivalry.
There were numerous other movies dealing with women and their lives, such as Laurie Collyer’s SherriBaby, with the superb Maggie Gyllenhaal in the title role, who is desperate to overcome her drug addiction and the shadows of her past and regain custody over her child. Jason Matzner’s Dreamland is a moving story of a friendship of two young girls. In Andraucha Waddington’s The House of Sand three generations of women struggle to find home in the middle of nowhere. Independent actress’, Joey Lauren Adams’ directorial debut, Come Early Morning stars Ashley Judd. Mia Goldman’s Open Window is a story of rape and the trauma it causes. Lovinsa Kavuma’s semi-documentary, Rape for Who I am, deals with the tragic phenomenon of raping lesbian women in South-Africa for their sexual orientation. Those who prefer a romantic comedy could enjoy Maria Maggenti’s Puccini for Beginners, which is a mixture of L and Sex and the City.