Berlin engagement for Sundance stars

For the fourth year in a row, the U.S. indie film fest ships some of its choicest cuts to Berlin.

If you live in Europe and want to catch the hot films that play at the Sundance Film Festival in January, you can book a flight to Utah, pay exorbitant rates for a condo in Park City and battle traffic, partygoers and surly lounge bouncers that now plague that once friendly festival. Or you can come to Berlin in February for the European Film Market and the Berlinale. For the fourth consecutive year, the EFM plays host to Sundance at Berlin, a collection of titles that played at the recently wrapped Sundance festival. Several other titles are also programd in the Berlinale itself.

This year 36 Sundance titles are in the EFM. These include both U.S. independent films and international films that screened in Sundance. Sundance programming director John Cooper said the initiative is an informal arrangement designed to coax Sundance filmmakers to go a major international market immediately after receiving the considerable media exposure of Sundance.

Included in the Sundance in Berlin package this year are such prize winners as an Israeli film about a living on a kibbutz in the 1970s, Dror Shaul's "Sweet Mud" (World Cinema Jury Prize); Jason Kohn's documentary about violence and corruption in Brazil, "Send a Bullet" (Documentary Grand Jury Prize ); Charles Ferguson's doc about the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, "No End in Sight" (Special Jury Prize); and Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's doc about three children in a Ugandan displacement camp competing in their country's music and dance festival, "War/Dance" (Documentary Directing Award).

Other Sundance winners in the EFM are Jeffrey Blitz's crowd-pleasing "Rocket Science" (Dramatic Directing Award), which transcended the predictable high-school yarn; Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's "Nanking" (Documentary Editing Award), a harrowing and tough film about the Japanese invasion of China in 1937; and Chen Shi-Zhen's "Dark Matters" (Alfred P. Sloan Prize) story about academic ethics and the obstacles to cultural assimilation in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Mitchell Lichtenstein's "Teeth" (Special Jury prize for Acting to Jesse Weixler "for a juicy and jaw-dropping performance") will play in the Berlinale's Panorama section. This is a dark comedy about a young virgin who discovers when a male companion tries to rape her that she has teeth in her vagina. (We don't make these things up, you know.) While on the subject a loony comedies, Andrew Currie's "Fido," in the market, is a comedy about domesticated zombies in an alternate reality of 1950s American suburbia.

Among the "buzz" titles that earned critical and audience plaudits in Park City are JP Schaefer's "Chapter 27," a dramatization of Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon, and Tom DiCillo's "Delirious," a terrific vehicle for the extraordinary talents of Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt that looked into the dog-eat-dog world of the paparazzi.

Sparking extraordinary controversy even before anyone saw the pictures were Deborah Kampmeier's "Hounddog" and "Robinson Devor's "Zoo." The former was known as the Dakota Fanning/rape movie. Protesters must have been upset when the rape scene turned out to be both brief and tastefully done. Some critics felt the movie fell apart about half-way through, but everyone gave a thumbs up on yet another terrific performance from the young actress.

"Zoo" also disappointed those itching for controversy. The doc about a real case in Washington, where a group of men who had sex with Arabian stallions, not only was a poetic, impressionistic study of men who surrender to extreme appetites, but a doc that expands our concept of documentaries themselves. Most of the film consisted of staged scenes with either actors or actual participants as the director examined the phenomenon of "zoophiles" without making judgments or jokes.

That the world is in a dark place at the moment was most evident in films such as Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern's searing documentary, "The Devil Came on Horseback," concerned the humanitarian catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan, and Marco Kreuzpaintner's "Trade," which tackled the tragedy of the worldwide sex-slave trade.

Among the international titles at EFM that proved audience favorites at Sundance are Canadian actress Sarah Polley's "Away from Her," in which Julie Christie plays an Alzheimer's patient; French director Julie Gavras' lively, perceptive and historically intriguing coming-of-age story, "Blame It on Fidel"; and Aussie Matthew Saville's highly compelling first feature, the thriller "Noise."

Playing at the festival in the Generation 14Plus section is "Eagle vs. Shark," a Gen Y screwball comedy from Kiwi director Taika Waititi. In the Panorama Documentary section, Lynn Hershman Leeson's "Strange Culture," like "Zoo," stages scenes with actors in order to recount the strange legal plight of an artist who ran afoul of President Bush's often wayward war on terrorism.