During the past two decades, Sundance has played an essential role in crafting the landscape of modern American cinema. But the widespread mythology of the Soderberghs and Tarantinos—whose careers began amid the deep freeze of mid-January gatherings in Park City—often overwhelm another key factor of the Sundance program: World cinema.
Although the program has always contained an international range of features, gradual changes to the event in recent years have allowed titles from other countries to stand on equal ground with their American counterparts. Movies from Japan, the Philippines and Germany screened at the festival in 1985, when the Sundance Institute took over the United States Film Festival, but a solid 10 years passed before the fest began giving awards to foreign entries. That was 1995, when Sundance added a jury prize in Latin cinema (Sergio Cabrera’s Eagles Don’t Hunt Flies won). Around this same time, the Institute hosted labs on several continents and developed strategies for bringing international artists to its domestic programs. “All of these activities strengthened the festival’s international relationships, and vice versa,” says senior programmer Caroline Libresco.
The first years of the new millennium brought a flurry of honors for world cinema. In 2003, a jury prize in international short moviemaking became a permanent fixture; prizes for dramatic and documentary world cinema began in 2005. Finally, in 2008, Sundance created world cinema awards for each of the categories allotted to American films, including excellence in cinematography, screenwriting and directing. “When we started the actual competition, that’s when we made our first decision for a global reach, which brought a real learning curve,” says John Cooper, Sundance’s director of festival programming.
The gradual recognition of international movies at Sundance was less the result of negligence than the product of the festival’s increased stability. “Although it has a high profile, Sundance has always been a small festival and, in truth, one that was generally associated with American film,” explains programmer John Nein.
Nein’s colleague, David Courier, echoes the sentiment: “We were defining ourselves as an American film festival,” he says. “Other countries’ stories were being told all over the world. We realized we needed to be telling those stories. The awards are beside the point.” Still, according to Nein, “the success of the competition has made it slightly easier over the years to find the type of films that we feel have a place at Sundance. It’s been fairly astonishing how quickly filmmakers in different parts of the world have become aware of the festival and want to bring their work here.”
While there hasn’t been the same frequency of breakout movies from other countries at Sundance that American entries have enjoyed, it’s not for lack of effort.
The programmers put aside a significant part of the year traveling the globe to ensure that no major festival remains off their collective radar. Regional sales agents also often arrange screenings of movies that aren’t included in the local programs. For example, while attending a festival in Thailand, midnight section programmer Trevor Groth screened a number of martial arts movies. Libresco has made numerous trips to Israel, keeping track of the burgeoning film community in the Middle East.
Unlike its American submissions, Sundance doesn’t require movies in the World Cinema competition categories to be world premieres, which broadens the range of possibilities. “We allow films to play in their countries of origin,” Nein says. “We basically divide and conquer the globe by traveling to festivals from all over the world.”
The result of these efforts became particularly clear in the early years of this decade, when notably complex international cinema premiered at the festival and gradually found new audiences. Tony Takitani, Tears of the Black Tiger and Shake Hands with the Devil all left memorable imprints—and each eventually landed American distribution deals, a feat that has become increasingly difficult even for domestic independent work.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of an international presence at Sundance took place in 2007, when John Carney’s low-budget Irish musical, Once, premiered to great acclaim. It soon landed an impressive distribution deal with Fox Searchlight, which launched its stars on a national press tour that culminated in an Oscar win for Best Original Song.
The following year, the festival program contained movies from more than two dozen countries. The arrival of the bittersweet narrative Captain Abu Raed marked a seminal moment in cinema history, as it was the first feature produced in Jordan. James Marsh’s stunning British documentary, Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit’s famous 1974 antics atop the World Trade Center towers, won the World Cinema Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature in addition to the Audience Award. It later went on to gross nearly $3 million in the U.S. alone. The festival also featured the British documentary Young@Heart, which was distributed by Fox Searchlight.
“We look at our international program with the attitude that it should contain a certain overall balance,” says Nein. “That means in terms of the regions it represents, the diversity of the stories and aesthetics and the experience of the filmmaker.” Nevertheless, Nein insists that foreign movies aren’t programmed on the basis of their origins. “We don’t have hard rules or quotas about any of that,” he says. “Obviously, with only 16 slots, you can’t program a film from every country that submits one.”
Sundance’s programmers keep their eyes peeled. They maintain a list of movies screening all over the world and frequently touch base with people involved in international productions to minimize oversights. “Toward the final days of the selection process, we do step back and look at the overall composure of the competition to make sure that it represents a range of work and isn’t too heavily weighted in any direction,” Nein notes. Certain countries may have a greater presence than others as a result of the comparative strengths of their domestic industries—Western Europe, the United Kingdom and France tend to be particularly fecund, for example—but not to the point where, say, a Captain Abu Raed would be knocked off the short list.
The number of countries represented in this year’s program has decreased from 2008. But given that there were 153 more foreign submissions than last year’s crop, the final result was not without its diverse components.
The competition sections together contain seven films from the U.K., where the industry appears to be making a comeback. Cooper notes the inclusion of the Palestinian narrative Amreeka, directed by Cherien Dabis. Palestinian cinema has yet to garner much scrutiny on the world stage, and the movie’s female director helps single it out. “That’s a rarity we’re happy to celebrate,” Cooper says, “but we never come into the selection looking for something in particular.”
As it happens, even the festival’s opening night film, the claymation drama Mary and Max, has international stature: It hails from Australia.
Meanwhile, Sundance has to keep the local population satisfied. “Our audiences for the foreign films have been great,” Courier says. “We’re in the middle of Utah, so it’s their big opportunity to see films they might never see again.” Artists usually don’t like to hear that their work will fade away, but Cooper believes moviemakers traveling to Park City from other countries aren’t necessarily preoccupied with a sales strategy. “Most aren’t so deadset on their film breaking them into something,” he says. “They’re really thinking about expanding their careers to directing American films, as well.”
Which means Sundance, even its global capacity, ultimately serves its base. “In America, everybody knows about Sundance,” Cooper says. “The stuff comes in, we try to keep our reputation up and they trust us, so it works. The world cinema, they’re seeing more of the old school pipeline—Venice, Cannes—and we’re still figuring out our place in that.”