Bright lights, Park City: Sundance's crystal ball

Sundance remains the center of the art house scene -- which means that this year, independent film will take an engaged view of the world at large.

There were any question about the Sundance Film Festival's continuing primacy in the independent world, just look to 2006, when no fewer than 40 of the festival's premieres found theatrical distribution later in the year. Granted, there's a big difference between Fox Searchlight's breakaway hit "Little Miss Sunshine," which took in more than $60 million at the boxoffice and seems certain for year-end accolades from the Oscars, and the less conspicuous features and documentaries that were channeled through the art house pipeline.

But from such widely released sleepers as Yari Film Group Releasing's "The Illusionist" and Paramount Vantage's "An Inconvenient Truth" to such acclaimed fare as ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson" and Kino International's "Old Joy," Sundance can still claim responsibility for a significant chunk of the art house market.

As festival director and director of programming, respectively, Geoffrey Gilmore and John Cooper have the privilege of seeing the future before it happens. Taking place at the beginning of the year, Sundance has the power to set the agenda for the months to come -- a task that involves a tricky balancing act that the festival hopes will best reflect the ever-broadening spectrum of independent film.

How much Sundance, which runs today-Jan. 28, determines the course of the indie world (or vice versa) is a matter of debate, but there's little doubt that the festival remains the most reliable crystal ball for the art house scene. With that in mind, what can moviegoers expect from Sundance '07?

"If there's any one overriding theme this year, it's the sense of optimism that runs through many of the films -- the theme of surviving adversity with a little bit of hope," Cooper says. "And that's not really the hallmark of the independent film traditionally, which has always ridden the darker side of life. But I saw a switch this year into films that are lighter in tone, at least in that they're about overcoming struggle and getting to the other side."

To that end, Cooper cites the dramatic competition feature "Grace Is Gone," in which John Cusack plays a father who learns that his wife has died in Iraq and must adjust to this new reality with his two young daughters, and another competition entry, "Never Forever," which stars Vera Farmiga as a woman who paradoxically attempts to save her marriage by having an affair. Even two films about intolerance in the church, the Spectrum entry "Save Me" and the documentary competition film "For the Bible Tells Me So," find some revelation and redemption in religious struggle.

"I'm not sure that optimism is the right word," Gilmore says, "but I'd echo John's sentiment that this year represents a big leap for independent film in that we're not looking at that dark independent vision we had in years past. The films have a much more engaged, more expansive view of what the world is because people are coming to grips with issues and problems rather than seeming alienated from it all."

Says Cooper with a laugh: "We've gotten away from the nihilistic youth stories. I remember when I first started, the films were all about driving across the desert with a gun in the glove compartment. You stopped at a diner, there was a pretty waitress, and you knew there was going to be a gun somewhere that was going to pop out at a certain point. But filmmakers are now getting very savvy, and they know that it's not good enough just to make a movie any longer. It has to be something that's fresh."

The process of paring the staggering and record-breaking 3,287 submissions down to the 122 features showcased at the festival wasn't an easy one for the programming staff. Aside from the arduous process of getting through all of them, the festival strives to achieve what Gilmore calls "about 20 different issues of (what constitutes) balance," from diversity of style and subject matter to numerous perspectives on the world. Gilmore and Cooper have hired a staff that they stress not only knows film but knows how to program a festival with a strong sense of the overall picture.

"Most of us don't find 125 films a year that we really love," Cooper says. "So for us, we have to keep an openness to the material. When you whittle things down, you usually end up with 20 more films than you need in each section, and that's when we start to look at them more closely and enter into a process where we just start talking."

"We don't have a set criteria," Gilmore adds. "What we try to do is to be open about how the films work, as opposed to trying to force them into categories. And you try to be open to the range of different filmmaking going on, particularly work that's fresh and new, or you end up being dismissive of things."

Sundance '07 will ask viewers to be open-minded, too, because the fest is set to feature a host of potentially controversial films in its competition section that are certain to draw attention. Chief among them is "Hounddog," writer-director Deborah Kampmeier's provocative follow-up to 2003's "Virgin." The film, set in the American South in the '60s, stars Dakota Fanning as a deeply troubled 12-year-old who seeks solace from abuse through the blues. The screenplay raised eyebrows with an explicit rape scene, which the filmmakers insist was done tastefully and with the actress' mother present, but it's just as shocking for Fanning's transition to a role that recalls child stars Brooke Shields in 1978's "Pretty Baby" and Jodie Foster in 1976's "Taxi Driver."

But "Hounddog" isn't alone in drawing prefestival gossip for its sexual aberrance. Robinson Devor, who's appeared in the festival with his acclaimed fiction films, 2000's "The Woman Chaser" and 2006's "Police Beat," returns with the competition documentary "Zoo," which concerns the real-life case of a Washington farmer who died from a ruptured anus after being violated by a horse. (Not to worry, the offending footage is not included in the film.)

Then there's the odd case of "Teeth," a dramatic competition entry about a virginal Christian teen who discovers during a moment of unwilling violation that her body has an unusual defense mechanism.

Gilmore defends the festival's commitment to backing provocative material. "If you show films that are melodramatically mainstream and speak to people's hearts, you should also show films that are cerebrally challenging and explore moral and value issues," Gilmore says. "I don't find it difficult to engage people with movies that are challenging. I know we get attacked for it sometimes, but oftentimes those attacks underscore what the importance of a film festival or any kind of artistic representation should be, which is to challenge the values and ideas that people have."

He adds: "A film like 'Teeth' is going to surprise people because it's fun, not just edgy. And 'Zoo' is almost an experimental work. It's a challenging film to think about, but it's also a jaw-dropping, are-you-kidding-me kind of story."

While those films and others from the premiere, dramatic and documentary competition sections likely will get most of the ink at this year's festival, Sundance recently has been particularly aggressive in expanding into less-traveled areas in experimental and world cinema. This year, the New Frontiers program offers a slightly larger slate in addition to the New Frontier on Main, a venue in the heart of Park City that will showcase experimental films, installations, panel discussions and other media.

"We're seeing a lot of convergence between the art and film worlds," Cooper says. "We wanted to have a place where not only the more formal experimentation could happen, but a lot could happen that usually exists in the museum world. (The New Frontier on Main) is a mix of gallery and lounge. We believe these artists are the people who are going to shape the future of cinema, at least stylistically."

Heading into the future, one of the great challenges facing the festival is its attempt to position itself as a truly international force, not one whose sphere of influence is limited to American independent films. Competition sections for world dramatic and world documentary have raised the stakes, but both are in their nascent stages, and, as Cooper notes, "There have been some growing pains."

The chief obstacle is obvious: How do you persuade a press corps intent on seeing American independent films at Sundance to pay attention to films from other parts of the world?

"There's a ceiling (to what Sundance can do)," Cooper admits. "There's real power out there in the international film festival circuit, with (the Festival de Cannes) and (the Venice Film Festival) and (the Toronto International Film Festival) and (the Berlin International Film Festival). What we're trying to do is make it the Sundance version of that, so instead of looking at established filmmakers, we want the international section to be about discovery. We're getting films from directors who are first- or second- or sometimes third-time filmmakers but haven't yet established themselves on the scene. Sometimes, they're unrecognized in their own countries."

For his part, Gilmore contends that the festival needs to provide a platform for international work because there are precious few other avenues for showcasing such films in the U.S.

"The United States is one of the most insular and parochial nations in the world, particularly given its sophistication and industrialization, but we don't have access to many of these films," Gilmore says. "For me, the fact that there's such a meager national presence of international filmmaking
is something that we hope to try to change by giving people a sense of what the evolution of that world is.

"The whole festival is focused on discovery," he adds. "That's the way it's always been, and that will continue to be our mission."