Firstpost at Sundance — Day 1: Festival founder Robert Redford takes a step back; After the Wedding premieres
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, 24 January, and Firstpost heads to the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah to bring you the latest news, reviews and interviews from America's largest independent film festival.
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival runs from 24 January to 3 February and Firstpost is at the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah to bring you the latest news, reviews and interviews from America's largest independent film festival.
There's no business like snow business
Layers. Layers. Layers. Enough well-informed well-wishers had stressed upon the need to dress in layers to stay warm in the subzero temperatures I was about to experience during my first Sundance in the wintry town of Park City. So, you pack your thermals, fleecewear, sweaters, down jackets, neck gaiters, gloves, woollen socks and more. You battle jet lag, near-inedible in-flight meals and a patchy GPS to get to a town tucked between world-class ski resorts, you can neither afford nor do you have the time for. Because you tell yourself, "You're here for the movies, not skiing."
And then the piercing cold mountain breeze hits you and you're like Jack Nicholson in that final, frightful shot in The Shining. You're just one of thousands of frozen faces trying to deal with high altitude and a higher density of stars than usual.
A record-breaking year
Festival founder Robert Redford, who always previews the lineup in the Day 1 press conference, surprised the hundreds of reporters in attendance at Park City's Egyptian Theatre by announcing that he'll be taking a more backseat role in the festival in future. “I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place, because the thing I’ve missed over the years is being able to spend time with the films and with the filmmakers and to see their work and be part of their community,” said the 82-year-old actor, who announced his retirement from acting last year following his appearance in The Old Man & The Gun.
Redford, who had been the public face of the flagship annual event of his non-profit Sundance Institute since its inception, said the festival had gotten big enough that it didn't need "a whole lot of introduction." It truly didn't. The slate spoke for itself.
Sundance has always tried to keep its focus on the various gifted indie storytellers, rather than the stars. So, in Redford's absence, Keri Putnam, the executive director of the Sundance Institute, took over to introduce what was a record-breaking year for the festival. This year's slate was chosen from 14,259 submissions, including 4,018 feature-length films. Of the 112 films selected from 33 countries, 45 of them were made by first-time filmmakers. Across Sundance’s four major competition categories (US Dramatic, US Documentary, World Cinema Dramatic, World Cinema Documentary), which feature 61 directors and 56 films, 42 percent of them are women, 39 percent are people of colour, and 23 percent identify as LGBTQIA+.
Putnam discussed how Sundance is a "public square for independent voices", the kind that is in short supply right now. She also brought to attention the significance of this year's theme, "Risk Independence", highlighting how the choices made — and the risks taken — by independent storytellers define our collective experience. “This festival is a home for independent artists around the world, to form a collective creative community,” she said.
"Together we have seen thousands and thousands of films, millions maybe. I think that when we encounter something new, we realize it right away. We know when we see something special, how important it is to bring that to audiences.” @kimyutani, #Sundance Director of Programming pic.twitter.com/PPsTtvW2uQ
— SundanceFilmFestival (@sundancefest) January 24, 2019
Following Putnam's introductory speech, Festival Director John Cooper moderated a panel, comprising the new Director of Programming Kim Yutani and festival programmers Caroline Libresco, David Courier, John Nein and Shari Frilot, who previewed the various categories and discussed what made this year's festival “more relevant in divided times than ever.”
Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore shine in the otherwise underwhelming After the Wedding
The festival opened on Thursday night with the world premiere of After The Wedding, Bart Freundlich's middling remake of Susanne Bier's Oscar-nominated Danish family drama. The film, which was simultaneously screened at both the Eccles and Ray theatres, gender-flips the lead roles with Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore taking over from Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgård. And it only works to the extent of an exceptional acting showcase for these two phenomenal actors.
Opening in the chaotic, impoverished streets of Chennai, After The Wedding introduces us to quintessential white saviour Isabel (Williams), who has given up her cozy, first-world life in New York to manage an orphanage that keeps street children from turning to a life of penury and prostitution. Struggling to keep her orphanage afloat, she reluctantly flies to New York to solicit funding from millionaire benefactor Theresa (Moore), who invites Isabelle to stay back and attend her daughter's wedding. On her arrival at the wedding, she discovers — by fortuity or from Theresa's scheming — that Theresa's husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) is none other than her ex-boyfriend and the bride, Grace (Abby Quinn), is the daughter she thought she had given up for adoption, before escaping to India. What follows is plenty of mostly forgettable soap-operatic domestic melodrama and a series of emotional climaxes.
Bier's original film felt heartbreaking yet somehow heartening but Freundlich's remake proves both narratively unsatisfying and emotionally lacking. It also reduces issues like poverty and child prostitution to mere ambient noise and poverty porn plot elements that perpetuate Western stereoptypes about urban India. Not to mention, the scenes set in Tamil Nadu are inauthentic and jarring with characters switching been conversing in Tamil and Hindi whimsically.
It's a pity considering the acting masterclasses provided by Moore and Williams. The former is extraordinary and engulfing in her performance while the latter continues to hit new peaks as an actor.
In the Q&A that followed the premiere, director Freundlich called his film a "reinvention,” rather than a remake. He remarked how the idea for the gender flip came from Moore, his wife and frequent collaborator, who added her story was “deepened” by it.
While the opening night film was a disappointment, there is hope yet for Day 2 with films like Honey Boy, I am Mother, Divine Love and The Nightingale set to premiere. So, I'm off for now, ready to brave the cold and long queues yet again, reminding myself, "You're here for the movies."
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