Coinciding as it does withthe western New Year, the Sundance Film Festival has always found itself in afortuitous slot. This event kick-starts the industry calendar like no other.Those who flock to Park City do so with that January zeal for renewal; whetherthey are distributors, agents or critics, they all feel an infectious urge toprowl for the freshest talents on display. The more unheralded the discovery,the better the story, and the higher the price, it seems. To that extent,Sundance has to be the envy of every major festival the world over; even Cannesand Berlin rely on the combined pulling power of art-house celebrities andHollywood box office idols as a bait-and-switch necessity that allowslesser-known names to share in some of the spotlight.
The historic beneficiary ofSundance's blessed status has been low-budget American cinema, which has seenits global profile rise out of all proportion to its commercial impact on theworldwide marketplace. Park City zeroed in on unproven film-makers livingwithin US shores, introducing Hollywood to an entire generation ofnow-household actors and directors. Together with Miramax, whose own growth hasfollowed a similar path, Sundance has been instrumental in helping the USstudio system renew its creative well-springs these past two decades.
All of which explains whythis year's decision on the part of Geoff Gilmore and his programming team toinaugurate World Cinema competitions for both dramatic and documentary importsis such a laudable but risky gamble. Having cemented its domestic credentialsafter years of single-minded dedication, Sundance runs the risk of diluting itsprecious identity. Two more competitions cannot help but distract the buyingand media attention by offering yet more mouth-watering propositions during apressure-cookered 10 days in the snowy altitudes.
And much like Miramax, whosegrandiose ambitions have led it to stray perilously close of late to the bigbudget arena occupied by the major studios, Sundance lays itself open to accusationsof hubris. There is no denying that the Sundance magic has rubbed off on theoccasional overseas film: The Full Monty, Shine, Four Weddings And AFuneral, Bloody Sunday and last year's Motorcycle Diaries all owetheir starts in life to enthusiastic receptions in Park City. But to suggestthat exciting first or second films by upcoming international film-makers needtheir own competition on US soil in order to break through ' because, toparaphrase Gilmore, overseas festivals focus too heavily on auteurs ' cannothelp but raise hackles among overseas indies wary of American hegemony.
The new competitions replacewhat has been a marginalized World Cinema section that was easily lost in thePark City flurry of English-language premieres. But with an already impressivegroup of overseas film-makers ' Matthew Vaughn, Kim Ki-Duk, Thomas Vinterberg,Stephen Chow, John Maybury, Hans Geissendoerfer, Zola Maseko, Dave McKean andDamien O'Donnell ' it is worth asking whether an additional two sections wouldimprove prospects. How many more genuine discoveries can a festival audience,or for that matter the US media, absorb in any one session'
But simply criticizingSundance for over-reaching is rather missing the point. Surely the biggerquestion is why in a world of discovery festivals is Sundance still needed tohoist world cinema to a higher level of awareness' The overlapping Rotterdamfilm festival, not to mention the various programming sidebars attendant toCannes, Berlin and countless other festivals, all supposedly devote themselvesto unearthing the next wave. But for some reason they cannot anoint tomorrow'ssensations with quite the same verve and subsequent success rate that Sundanceenjoys year-after-year. Take as an example, This Charming Girl, one ofthis year's contenders for a Sundance jury award. This Korean film has alreadywon the New Currents award, the top prize for up-and-coming Asian film-makers,at Pusan. Another, the Ecuadorean film Cronicas, enjoyed rave reviews inUn Certain Regard last May. But both films were seen as needing the validationof another American prize-giving ceremony as well.
For Screen International,part of whose editorial mission is to see international cinema claim itsrightful place in the North American marketplace, this is a double-edged sword.Our whole-hearted support of Sundance's inaugural competition extends to havingour US Editor Mike Goodridge lend his expertise to the World DramaticCompetition jury. We believe that anything that helps excite the US media aboutworldwide film-making is worth celebrating. However, questions must be askedabout the continuing deficiencies of the international cinema circuit as astar-making crucible able to conjure up box office gold from new raw materials.What Europe, Asia and the rest of the world need are Sundances of their own.