June saw the return of Sundance London for its fourth edition, after a year’s hiatus, and several smart choices that started with a relocation to London’s Picturehouse Central West End flagship venue from Greenwich’s O2 Arena – an enormous, soulless grey dome which ScreenDaily rightly deemed “too far removed from central London, with the commercial nature of the venue not in tune with the indie sensibilities of the festival”. (Instead, come September, movie magazine Empire will get to try their hand at drawing crowds to south-east London with the new three-day Empire Live at the O2, which Editor-in-Chief Terri White promises will bring punters “closer to the world of movies and entertainment”.)
2-5 June 2016 | Picturehouse Central, London
Sundance London is summed up by Picturehouse’s chief programmer Clare Binns as an opportunity “to showcase the very best movies from one of the leading festivals in the world” with a particular focus on first-time filmmakers, pulling together 11 UK and international premieres, 15 shorts, three panel discussions and a masterclass with award-winning super-producer James Shamus over three days for the benefit of “London’s cinephiles”. Previous editions hosted premieres of critically-lauded sleeper films like Fruitvale Station, Obvious Child, Blackfish and Upstream Color; this year saw the European premiere of Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary Weiner, international premieres of Sian Heder’s Ellen Page-starring Tallulah, the actress Clea DuVall’s directorial debut The Intervention and the UK premiere of Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America, with the latter two also trailing Sundance US awards for performance and screenwriting.
Speaking on a lively panel titled ‘Diversity as an Ethos’, Binns described the original Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah as a “shining example of what should be happening” here in the UK, telling a rapt audience that we have a long way to go with regard to stories on screen being representative of all audiences. Joining Binns were the BFI’s Ben Roberts, Sundance Institute’s Executive Director Keri Putnam, Life Animated director Roger Ross Williams, Tallulah producer Heather Rae and producing powerhouse Effie Brown (Dear White People, In the Cut, But I’m a Cheerleader).
As Brown was quick to note, constant chatter around the hot topic of diversity has made people “tone deaf and agitated” – but this discussion was as animated as any I’ve seen on the subject. Putnam discussed the responsibility institutions have to actively seek out diversity, drawing attention to the ways in which Americans and American artists can be “isolated” and “myopic” when it comes to participating in a global conversation. She was also frank about the work still to be done at Sundance, singling out a report recently produced by the Institute that revealed just 24 per cent of its directors to be women – with an even smaller percentage of women’s second features screened at the festival (a pitiful seven per cent).
It would be impossible to capture the breadth of Sundance’s programming with just 11 films, and indeed I found Sundance London’s selection mixed in quality. In Hartigan’s bumbling Morris from America, a black football coach relocates to Germany with his pre-teen son where both find themselves culturally displaced. African-American comic Craig Robinson brings nuance and humour to his role as Morris’ sensitive single father, but I found his performance unable to mask the awkward way the film uses its German setting in a transparent bid to make the most of European co-funding. Also disappointing was Todd Solondz’s Weiner-Dog, whose mannered wackiness and shallow explorations of mortality felt even more jarring due to the film’s piecemeal, four-act structure.
Still, there were hits: the polished Weiner’s classically constructed rise-fall-rise of New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and the sexting scandal that has sullied his reputation since 2011; frequent Ang Lee collaborator James Shamus’s elegant directorial debut and Philip Roth riff Indignation; Clea DuVall’s perceptive and pleasingly lo-fi relationship comedy The Intervention, which draws excellent performances from her ensemble cast.
The most memorable feature I saw was Goat, Andrew Neel’s brooding fraternity drama, based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir of the same name and co-written by Neel, David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts. Ben Schnetzer is Brad, a vulnerable, PTSD-riddled teenager whose trauma is triggered amidst the extreme hazing he experiences when rushing his brother’s college fraternity. Though the film is slickly shot, lingering seductively on the titillating, testosterone-filled tableaus of campus life, what’s compelling here is the critical way Neel frames masculinity as something shaped by humiliation and violence, and the excellent, inward-looking performances from Schnetzer and heartthrob pop star Nick Jonas as older brother Brett. Neel introduced the public screening of the film with a comment that expressed his concern that international audiences might have “a smutty notion of what’s coming out of the United States,” commending Sundance London as a kind of corrective.
Yet the question remains, what exactly is Sundance doing in London? In Park City, Sundance, like Cannes, is an industry festival – an important first-look at the highest tier of emerging and established American independent filmmakers and a marketplace; year-round, the Sundance Institute is a hub of financial and creative development support for filmmakers. It’d be fair to say that while the Sundance name carries with it a certain prestige connected to the festival, that’s far less salient here in London – during a roundtable interview, Goat director Neel recalled the London cabbie who ferried him from Heathrow as being unfamiliar with the festival – making it perhaps an odd choice to export into a public festival.
Indeed, notably absent from Sundance London were some of this year’s more high-profile Sundance premieres including Nate Parker’s directorial debut Birth of a Nation (which scooped up both the festival’s Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for drama, as well as a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight for a Sundance record-breaking $17.5 million), both fiction and nonfiction retellings of reporter Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 televised suicide (Antonio Campos’s Christine and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, respectively), and new films from Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) and Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester-by-the-Sea). My suspicion is that the UK premieres of many of these films have been tapped for the decidedly glitzier London Film Festival in October.
Either way, it’s refreshing to see Picturehouse offering a welcome palate-cleanser of American indies before the inevitable summer slate of blockbuster reboots and sequels hits screens – many of which will be American or at least American co-productions. Ben Roberts praised the films coming out of the Sundance stable as displaying more “energy and diversity” than “we’ve been able to manage here in the UK”. Better still would be a renewed effort to emulate the energy of Sundance when we celebrate Britain’s own pioneering indies.