sat 04/07/2020

theartsdesk at Sundance London | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at Sundance London

theartsdesk at Sundance London

Robert Redford brings a little flavour of snowy Utah to the O2

Creative guys hanging out: Nick Hornby interrogates Robert Redford and T-Bone BurnettGareth Cattermole, Getty Images

This weekend Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute are bringing a sort of taster version of the world’s leading showcase for independent (non-studio) English-language films to London. No one’s going to mistake Greenwich’s O2 Centre for an upscale skiing resort in the Rockies, home of the famed Sundance Film Festival which is held in January, but if Sundance London lacks the funky screening venues and bars of Park City, Utah, it also doesn’t require standing in line in the snow and freezing cold.

The other thing that’s hard to replicate is the possibility that you might find yourself in that line or at that bar next to a well-known, dressed-down star or director. But in its first two days Sundance London has already produced a number of surprise guest appearances. Paul Simon turned up unannounced to answer questions after a screening of Under African Skies, a documentary tracing his return to South Africa 25 years after Graceland. A reading of British actor Adowale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s screenplay for Farming, a drama about Nigerian children farmed out to white working-class couples in the Seventies that was developed in Sundance’s Screenwriting Lab, drew a cast headlined by Minnie Driver, Marc Warren, David Harewood, Ashley Walters and Jaime Winstone (pictured below with Akinnuoye-Agbaje centre).

The London incarnation also has a strong musical element the Utah version lacks, and it is here the star power has been concentrated, with concerts by performers including Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Placebo (Brian Molko pictured below, photo by Gareth Cattermole), Guillemots, and Tricky with Marina Topley-Bird. The opening night saw Robert Redford and composer T-Bone Burnett discussing creating music for films, with Nick Hornby, who has a foot in both camps, as moderator.

The Sundance Film Festival has two purposes. One is to let new filmmakers find their audience and give the public the chance to discover new talent (the roll-call of Sundance “discoveries” in the festival’s nearly 35 years includes Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky and Steven Soderbergh, to name just a few) and certainly “part of the reason for the London festival is to make the UK public aware of Sundance films,” said its director of programming, Trevor Groth. The sampling of 14 films drawn from the 2012 crop features a mixture of documentary and narrative, the latter ranging from experimental (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) to more accessible comedy (Liberal Arts) to actress Julie Delpy’s sequel to Two Days in Paris starring Chris Rock. It also includes the winner for the Best Documentary Prize (The House I Live In, about the drug war) and the screenwriting award (Safety Not Guaranteed).

But this is only half of Sundance London’s mission. The other, says Groth, is “to connect with UK filmmakers who want to participate in Sundance”. To this end, it set up a breakfast where British directors who had been selected by organisations like Bafta, Film London and Channel 4 got a rare opportunity to hobnob informally with Sundance gatekeepers and presiding deity Redford, as well with as the Sundance US filmmakers. “Sundance is fighting people off,” says attendee Mumgano Nyoni, whose The Great Mwansa was selected by Bafta as one of this year’s best shorts. “Six to seven thousand people apply for the short film category alone, and there are 1,000 films entered for each feature category. So just to be selected is a ticket to credibility.”

British films have been shown at Sundance virtually every year, from Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 to this year’s Shadow Dancer, and its Lab program has supported the development of numerous British filmmakers such as Andrea Arnold. Three UK directors who have participated in the Festival — Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), James Marsh (Man on Wire) and Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil, a 2012 selection) - debated three US directors of Sundance London selections on a panel called “Thinking Independently: US vs. UK”. Despite the confrontational title, and moments resembling a miserabilist version of the old Saturday Night Live sketch “¿Quién es más macho?” (¿Quién has it tougher? perhaps), both sides proved to have more in common than not. They agreed that (1) with the disappearance of government funding (UK) and the demise of the studio divisions devoted to producing and distributing independents (US), filmmakers have to hustle harder than ever to cobble together production financing; (2) innovations in technology are revolutionising making and distributing films but it’s not clear yet how it’s all going to shake out; (3) they all learned filmmaking without going to film school; (4) don’t give up the day job; and (5) everyone should move to France, where filmmakers get stipends in between projects. Prize for best anecdote goes to Chadha (pictured overleaf, photo by Ian Gavan) for a gleeful account of her response to the late UK Film Council’s declining to fund Beckham: she told them in no uncertain terms she would play the race card and “go to the press saying they wouldn’t fund Asian filmmakers”. She got the money.

Besides introducing filmmakers to the public, Sundance provides a forum for their work to be seen by acquisition executives who can pick up the film for distribution. Initially the festival was all about passion projects with commercial considerations a distant prospect, but starting in the Nineties with Sex, Lies and Videotape, Hollywood came sniffing around, occasionally acquiring films for substantial amounts, and this possibility lent a sometimes feverish gloss to the original laidback atmosphere. Now that such pricey acquisitions are once again exceptional, the atmosphere is less like Cannes at a higher altitude, but many filmmakers nevertheless keep a beady eye out for any VIPs in the audience.

However, the original spirit persists. “What’s so interesting,” says Sundance 2012 filmmaker Sheldon Candis, a University of Southern California film school grad whose film Luv, a coming-of-age story starring Danny Glover and Common, is showing at the O2, “is you get Will Ferrell coming with a film that he produced [The Bachelorette] and you still get a kid who made a feature for $20,000 on his laptop. Or you get Frank Langella in this big movie, Robot and Frank, and you get people like me. I had names in my movie but I paid them $2 and a turkey sandwich. That’s the great thing about it all.” (Pictured below: Tricky and Marina Topley-Bird perform)

Without the acquisition element or celebrity visitors, Sundance London is even more like the “we’re all in this together” early days (a feeling possibly enhanced by the sense of sharing a bunker after spending days in the O2 deprived of natural light).  “Here’s the deal — and I heard Robert Redford say this at a directors’ lunch we had at the original Institute, which was two acres of land he bought for around $500 as a place to safeguard and nurture creativity,” Candis recalled. “Sundance the festival grew out of that, and [Park City’s] Main Street started supporting the local economy so you got more commerce. Then Hollywood came and brought Tiffany and Diesel and Nike… he’ll tell you that’s not Sundance. What I love so much about London is it’s so vibrant with creativity and art, and Sundance London feels like the essence of  ‘we’re presenting art, and we’re sharing’. The conversation between T-Bone Burnett and Redford was like, even though they happen to be two very successful guys, in the end they were just two creative guys hanging out.”

You might not get to meet Bob himself, but for the moment Sundance London has offered a unique opportunity to meet US filmmakers, or the British talent of tomorrow, informally after a screening or in the Inc Club bar, as well as to see some of the most interesting work not likely to be playing at a multiplex near you.

The London incarnation has a strong musical element the Utah version lacks

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters