SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
The Sundance Film Festival has been dominated for so long by a circus of cell phones, models, agents and celebrity-hunting media hounds that it has become difficult to locate worthy films amid the crush of tabloidesque media coverage. Adding to the problem has been the spread of indie films aimed at
industry standards, a subset dubbed "Indiewood." This year, thanks perhaps to dotcom crashes and economic sobriety, the streets of Park City, Utah, were lined with a bit less gold, and Sundance reclaimed its birthright as the soul–not merely the platform–of independent film, delivering a full slate of entries concerned with meaning, truth and real-world issues. Over and over, films rejected formula in favor of new styles, production tools and narrative strategies. There were even political broadsides on Main Street, courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls and "Alice Locas." Agitprop messages targeted the film profession: The U.S. Senate Is More Progressive Than Hollywood, proclaimed one; Female Senators: 9%. Female Directors: 4%. The stickers were a welcome addition to the usual huckstering aimed at getting folks to a movie.
As usual, some of the most thought-provoking and soul-stirring work was found in the World Cinema section. The Back of the World ("La Espalda del Mundo"), by the Madrid-based Peruvian director, Javier Corcuera, is a trilogy of injustice that takes its time getting to know, and introducing us to, its central characters: a child laborer and his family and friends in Peru; a Kurdish exile in Stockholm; his Turkish village; and death-row inmates and their families in Texas. They all have names, details, faces. Tilting at the windmills of child labor, ethnic repression and capital punishment, Corcuera wisely favors the individual over the polemical. Utterly free of didacticism, The Back of the World brushes its subjects with the luminosity of an oil painting. It's impossible to exit the theater unmoved.
Far different is the dramatic film Without a Trace ("Sin Dejar Huella") by Mexican director Maria Novaro. She's concerned with freedom, not restraints. Her fanciful script follows two women on the run across Mexico, from Juárez to Cancun. A red car is after them, but is it the angry drug dealer or the corrupt policeman at the wheel? In this breezy road movie, Novaro finds plenty of opportunities to poke delicious fun at the state of affairs in her country, from Vicente Fox's cowboy style to the idealization of Subcomandante Marcos. Its shared Sundance award for best Latin American film should help the movie in the United States, where it's bound to be compared to Thelma & Louise; after all, they were heading for Mexico when they ran into the Grand Canyon.
Of the US films, the most audacious and risk-taking was Waking Life, an extraordinary animation from Austin-based director Richard Linklater, whose previous films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) hardly prepared the audience for this foray into philosophy and psychic phenomena (he was represented by a second film in the festival as well, of which more later). Linklater teamed up with Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallota to make a live-action film with digital footage of seventy-five people–actors, academics and experts–walking and talking, then engaged a team of artists to animate the footage using Sabiston's new type of software. The result is a film peopled by remarkable hybrids that look like cartoons but move and speak like real folks.