By Larry Mark
Greetings from Park City, Utah, where I arrived for my seventh (or is it my eighth?) visit to the Sundance Film Festival. I can’t keep track of how many years I have come, but neither, apparently, can Robert Redford, the festival’s founder. Speaking at the opening press conference this afternoon, Redford said that Sundance has been celebrating its 25th birthday for the past three years. It all depends on when you start the count. Do you start in 1985? Or maybe you start back in the 1970s, when the fest was called the USA Film Festival and the focus was not on indies?
I arrived really excited about the offerings at the 2009 festival, which runs from Jan. 15-25. And why not? The opening film is a Jewish one: “Mary and Max,“ an Australian clay animation feature written and directed by Adam Elliot. Elliot made a splash at Sundance in 2004 with his animated short film, “Harvie Krumpet” – about a working class boy with perpetual bad luck – which went on to win an Oscar. The perhaps even quirkier “Mary and Max” is a feature film about a pen pal friendship that has endured for over two decades between Mary Dinkle, a zaftig 8 year old in a Melbourne suburb, and Max Horowitz, a 44 year old obese Jewish agoraphobe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who lives in isolation in Queens, NY. I scored a ticket to the opening screening of the film, as well as the after party, and will fill you in on Friday.
Other films on my growing hit list include: “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” a documentary by two of the Jewish attorney’s daughters, which explores his famed civil rights litigation as well as his defense of accused rapists and terrorists; “The Messenger,” by Israeli-born Oren Moverman, about two soldiers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) who work for the military’s Casualty Notification Office, and are “casualties” themselves; “Zion and His Brothers” an Israeli sibling drama set in Haifa, by Eran Merav, who studied at both the Camera Obscura and the Sam Spiegel Film & TV schools in Israel.
The list also includes a smattering of Palestinian themed films, including “Pomegranates and Myrrh“ by Najwa Najjar; and “Shouting Fire” by Liz Garbus, a documentary on free speech which includes a focus on the infamous Neo-Nazi march in Skokie three decades ago.
In terms of celebrity sightings after just a few hours, I only had two: Robert Redford and Spike Lee. At the press conference today, Redford said he’s excited that President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20 falls in the middle of the festival. “You’ve got a lame-duck guy going out, but he sure has done a lot of quacking in the last while,” Redford said of the Bush Administration. Redford added that the National Endowment for the Arts had been “fighting the right, which saw art as some kind of threat. “So I think that’s going to change.”
Asked if Sundance was going to create a festival in Abu Dhabi, Redford said that the labs had gone international and had worked well in the Middle East, specifically in Iran and Jordan, since the 1990s. While still in preliminary discussions with representatives from Abu Dhabi, he expects that Sundance will proceed in creating some lab or event there in the future.
Oh, and then there was Spike Lee. After the press conference, I skipped the free Park City liquor giveaway (it’s an oat-based vodka. What self-respecting Litvak would drink a vodka made of oats?) Instead, I tried a free espresso. It was just the barrista and me, when a shorter “stranger” approached the coffee bar. He ordered an espresso as well. It was Spike Lee. We chatted about the Knicks and his disappointment with the team – until he stepped out of the theater and was barraged by camera-wielding journalists asking about his latest project, the film of the Broadway rock musical, “Passing Strange.”
And now on to the opening night film…
For more information, visit the http://www.sundance.org website