Sundance '06 Marks Return To Fest's Roots

In unveiling the lineup for the independent feature film and world cinema competitions for next year's Sundance Film Festival on Monday, programmers characterized the upcoming fest as a return to its roots in independent programming. The key to what they consider the core of Sundance, the four competition sections, is the discovery of new faces before and behind the camera.

"I don't know how broadly these films will play," festival director Geoffrey Gilmore said. "What I'm not worried about, though, is the quality of the films or the excitement this return to our roots will produce. I want people to take a step back when it's over and say, 'God, what a great class of directors this is.' "

Said director of programming John Cooper: "Usually, we get our information from normal sources -- producers, sales reps and agents. But a lot of this festival's lineup will be unknown even to them."

The competition screenings will take place Jan. 19-29 in Park City, with additional screenings occurring in other Utah locations, including Salt Lake City.

To return to its roots, Sundance has undergone a restructuring. The dramatic and documentary sections of the world competition category, introduced for the first time this year, will expand to 16, the same number of films that traditionally compete in the two American categories, which means 64 films will screen in competition. To counterbalance this, organizers have reduced the number of premieres, to be announced this week, from 24 to 17.

Although the number of features selected for Sundance remains about the same as previous years at 120, the number of submissions has shot up. The 3,148 submissions were composed of 1,764 U.S. features and 1,384 international features. This represents a dramatic increase from 2005, when 1,385 American features and 1,228 world features were considered.

"Hardly any of the titles in competition will ever be mistaken as Hollywood in origin," Gilmore said. "These are diverse, risk-taking, aesthetically innovative, authentically independent films. Many came out of the blue this year. I can't wait to see what the surprises will be because I just don't know.

"Some may blow critics away or strike a chord with sophisticates, but I don't know about their marketability," he added. "Acquisitions people may look at some films and say, 'How do I market that?' "

While long considered the festival for American independents -- and 78 of the 120 features remain American -- what clearly excites programmers for next year is the expansion of the world competition.

"The quality of the program in documentaries and dramatic features is exciting and diverse," Gilmore said. "These are directors who have already made a mark in international filmmaking, but not at the auteur level that plays at Cannes."

Said Cooper, "We traveled more (this year), talked to more people, scouted more festivals and got the word out that Sundance is a place for international premieres."

As might be expected, no fewer than 15 submissions deal with the ongoing war in Iraq. Programmers selected three.

"It's great that so many films deal with Iraq, but we made a choice," Gilmore said. "The festival is about the range of subject matter as well as the ways stories are told."

In the U.S. documentary competition, Patricia Foulkrod's "Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends" shows the reality of combat in Iraq, while James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments" tells stories of Iraqi people against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion. In the world documentary competition, "The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez," by Germany's Heidi Specogna, looks at the story of the first soldier to die in the war, an immigrant from Guatemala.

Several competition films deal with moral dilemmas, Gilmore said.

"The independent arena used to be narrowly defined in the '90s by (stories about) dysfunctional families, Quentin Tarantino wannabes and quirky comedies," he said. "Now films such as 'Steel City,' 'Hawk Is Dying,' 'Stephanie Daley' and 'Forgiven' deal with moral dilemmas, with how one deals with the people in your life. I am so much more impressed by the nuances in the storytelling these days, in the richness of details."

Some competition films are located in familiar worlds but take decidedly fresh approaches, officials said. Dito Montiel's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" looks at blue-collar precincts of Queens, N.Y., but "reinvigorates that familiar setting," Gilmore said. "It's about memory and trying to find something of your own self in how you grew up. It explores how memory and history work."

There is freshness, too, in how Ashley Judd in Joey Lauren Adams' "Come Early Morning" and Ryan Gosling in Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" play different aspects of functional addiction, meaning characters who continue to operate in society while dealing with sex, drug and alcohol addictions. And Maggie Gyllenhaal's character of a woman released from prison in Laurie Collyer's "Sherrybaby" has been "seen a dozen times, but it's refreshed here," Gilmore said.

Other themes identified are those of insomnia and obsessions. "Wide Awake" focuses on director Alan Berliner's struggles with insomnia. The theme continues in several more features in sections to be announced this week. Lauren Greenfield's documentary "Thin" looks at anorexia and bulimia. Michael Cain's "TV Junkie" is described as " 'Tarnation' times three" by Gilmore, referring to last year's festival hit "Tarnation," in which a filmmaker used home movies, family photos and movie clips to create a chronicle of his life. The new film is based on 5,000 hours of home video.

Migration and community are twin themes throughout the festival. Along with "Short Life," the theme recurs in Joseph Mathew's "Crossing Arizona" and Christopher Quinn's "God Grew Tired of Us." Malcolm Ingram's "Small Town Gay Bar" is about community in a place where it is hard to find in the Deep South.

Of Gela Babluani's "13 (Tzameti)," which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Gilmore said the film was "overlooked." He singled out Georges Babluani's performance in the French-Georgian film as "unbelievable."

"Kiss Me Not on the Eyes," from Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab, presents an unusual look at female artistry struggling to survive amid the cultural wars of modern-day Egypt. Similarly, "No. 2," from New Zealand director Toa Fraser, highlights the conflict between religious and moral values. Yoav Shamir's "5 Days," focusing on the recent evacuation of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces, deals with the confrontation between a religious fundamentalist belief and a culture unwilling to tolerate its view of historical rights and privileges.

The selected features include 85 world premieres, 18 North American premieres and 14 U.S. premieres and represent 29 countries and 48 first-time feature filmmakers.

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Kirk Honeycutt writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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