From the 26th to the 29th of April 2012, in the midst of a contradictory combination of drought and April showers, the Sundance Film Festival came to London for the first time. Holding a quintessentially American film festival in the UK’s number one city may seem as contrary as the weather, but the inaugural Sundance London aimed to take a step towards a more industrious, exciting and innovative international film scene.
For four days the festival colonised the Cineworld at the O2 in Greenwich; directors, actors, celebrities, programming officials, festival founder Robert Redford and common or garden movie fans all braved the downpours to take in the best of American independent film. Screening were fourteen feature films selected from those shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah earlier this year, each one introduced personally by their respective directors. There were also musical performances from the likes of Placebo and Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
The crowd of Americans, both organisers and viewers, who had flown in for the festival seemed astonished by the severity of the weather, but also by the sheer scale of Cineworld’s Sky Superscreen, a 770 capacity auditorium which claims to be the biggest screen in London (in fact, the BFI IMAX is slightly bigger). The auditorium itself is so big that unless most of the seats are filled, the film actually echoes around the theatre. Even so, the Superscreen was the only place to be on Sundance weekend, showcasing the best of what the festival had to offer.
The best included Colin Trevollow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, a quirky comedy in which three magazine journalists track down a man who placed a newspaper advert for fellow time-travellers. Starring Aubrey Plaza (Scott Pilgrim), the film is hilariously funny, but also moving, with a denouement that elicited a spontaneous round of cheering from the Superscreen audience.
A subtle film which nevertheless caught and held the attention of viewers was For Ellen, directed by So Yong Kim and starring Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine). For Ellen tells the emotional tale of Joby Taylor (Dano), a washed-up rocker fighting his estranged wife for custody of their daughter.
There were also documentaries aplenty in the line-up, including Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, an uncompromising look at America’s ‘war on drugs’, and the adverse effects that it has had on already impoverished communities in the US. Viewers found the film so affecting that most of the questions asked of Jarecki (renowned director of documentaries Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger) following the screening were about what can be done to remedy the situation.
Another documentary that elicited a strong personal response from the audience was Chasing Ice, a film by Jeff Orlowski about the work of photographer James Balog. Through his initiative Extreme Ice Survey, Balog has recorded the gradual melting of glaciers using time lapse photography in an effort to illustrate the catastrophic effects of climate change. On the Sunday, the film was introduced personally by Robert Redford, who described climate change as an issue very close to his heart; he also praised documentary film, saying that it uses film as a language in order to inform people about important issues. The film features staggering images of melting glaciers, including the largest glacier ‘calving’ event (when chunks of ice break away from the main glacier) ever captured on film.
Other highlights of the festival were Filly Brown, a sentimental exploration of the family troubles of a female Latino rapper, Finding North, a hard-hitting documentary about issues of hunger and poverty in the US, and The Queen of Versailles, which chronicles the thwarted efforts of a billionaire couple to build a dream mansion in the style of a French palace. Viewers were also impressed by Terence Nance’s experimental film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which mixes fact and fiction and makes use of animation in an effort to explore the nuances of human relationships.
While the first ever Sundance London seems to have generally been very well received, as yet there is no word from Redford and co. on whether the UK version of the festival will become a regular event. UK based fans showed a large amount of interest and enjoyment in the festival, but whether or not this will be enough to coax Sundance across the Atlantic again in 2013 remains to be seen. However, even if the festival never returns to our shores, there are still plenty of British movie-goers who won’t easily forget the four days they spent in the dark recesses of London’s O2, being visually assaulted by the best of American indie cinema.