/ 21 January 2014

Sundance Film Festival: A taste of what’s to come

The cast and crew of 'Dear White People' at the Sundance Film Festival.
The cast and crew of 'Dear White People' at the Sundance Film Festival.

It says as much about the future of the Sundance Film Festival as it does about its past that both politicians and pop stars made appearances during the opening weekend of America's biggest film festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

While Mitt Romney put on a brave face for the premiere of a documentary following his failed attempt at winning the White House, One Direction singer Harry Styles was being chased by screaming girls down Main Street in Park City, Utah, where the film festival takes place.

When the festival wraps up on Sunday, 123 feature films – made up of narrative features and documentaries – will have been shown from 37 countries.

Romney, whose family is from Utah, came for a documentary, simply titled Mitt.

Styles went to support his friend, Zach Braff, the TV actor who made his breakout as a director at Sundance a decade ago, with the film Garden State, and returned this time around with his crowd-funded follow up, Wish I Was Here.

The documentaries have covered topical subjects, from internet addiction (Love Child) to the making of a Broadway musical about revolutionary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Finding Fela).

Gay marriage
But perhaps the most relevant has been The Case Against 8, about the successful effort to overturn California's ban on marriage for gay couples. The documentary has taken on even more significance in the wake of Utah backtracking on a decision to allow same-sex unions at the beginning of the month.

To protest the decision, a champagne-soaked wedding reception was held after the film's premiere for some of the 1 300 gay couples, who got hitched last month when the state briefly allowed it. With the Supreme Court putting a halt on same-sex marriages until the case is resolved, actors such as George Takei used the festival to speak out against the state of Utah not recognising these marriages when the federal government does.

On the other side of the genre fence, the narrative feature films gave hints at what's to come on the big screen later this year. Distribution deals were signed for movies like Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo, and The Skeleton Twins, which shows off another side to Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

Twilight's Kristen Stewart attempted to shake off her vampire persona by playing an army private at Guantanamo Bay in the movie Camp X Ray, while Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul garnered positive attention for his role in drama Hellion.

Aside from breakout acting performances, this year's festival also featured glimpses of the future of filmmaking, with a number of crowd-sourced movies being debuted. One of the most talked about was Dear White People, which started life as a Twitter feed and was made into a feature through Kickstarter.

Richard Linklater's much-anticipated film Boyhood stretched the boundaries of filmmaking and character development, as the director (known for Dazed and Confused, and the Before Sunset series) filmed his cast in intervals over a 12-year period to create a fully realised film.

South Africans at Sundance Film Festival
"It's the film festival you dream of attending – and it doesn't disappoint," says producer and screenwriter Sean Drummond, who is one of 13 South Africans attending this year's festival, as part of a programme organised together with the Cape Film Commission. While there were no local films in competition or part of the official selection, the festival still offered a chance for South Africans to interact with the greater film fraternity.

Drummond is looking to create an international profile for his film, a South African Western called Five Fingers for Marsailles. "It's been great to get a sense of what the film festival is all about, and meet other filmmakers who are trying to do the same thing we are, here in the US," said Drummond.

He said being at the festival with fellow South Africans who are doing the same thing has been encouraging. Chris Roland from ZenHQ Films agreed, saying he was using the time to meet with distributors for three of his company's recently finished films, and meeting other producers for possible co-productions.