Sundance Film Festival: A Jew’s View

The 2011 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 20-30 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah, quietly opened yesterday with a press conference – but Jewish fare at the time seemed slim.

Whereas last year’s festival included several films with Jewish themes, including films about comedian Joan Rivers, the Warsaw Ghetto, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and Hasidic youth being used as drug mules, blatantly Jewish films are hard to find this year.

One is an Israeli film which will have its world premiere at Sundance.  “Restoration” (Boker Tov Adon Fidelman) is directed by Yossi Madmon and written by Erez Kav-El.  It is the story of an antique furniture restorer who struggles to keep his workshop alive, while his relationship with his own estranged son, who is trying to close down the shop, begins to disintegrate.  A young, mysterious apprentice aids in his struggle.  The Israel Consul General of Los Angeles will sponsor one of several parties for the film prior to its screening on Friday.

Another highly anticipated film is “Crime After Crime,” a documentary directed by Yoav Potash.  His film tells the story of Debbie Peagler, a survivor of brutal domestic abuse who has been imprisoned for her connection to the murder of her abuser for twenty years.  She finds her only hope for freedom when two rookie land-use attorneys—one of them an orthodox Jew in Berkeley, Joshua Safran—with no background in criminal law step forward to take her case.

Keri Putnam, Sundance’s executive director, was hired last April to lead Sundance.  Festival founder Robert Redford called her “the person who’s going to take us forward.”

Putnam, who first attended the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, said that the ten day film festival, which, as in the recent past, is already sold out, is an expression of what happens at the Sundance Institute all year long. 

For the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, 118 feature-length films were selected, representing 29 countries by 40 first-time filmmakers.  Twenty five films are in competition.  These films were selected from 3,812 submissions, 1,943 of which were from the U.S. Ninety-two films at the Festival will be world premieres.

The Festival’s Short Film Program comprises 81 short films from U.S. and international filmmakers selected from 6,467 submissions, which is up 6% over 2010.

John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival said, “The Festival is a challenge to narrowly define. It is all at once exciting, fun, crazy, engaging, visceral, and sometimes even painful. We can explain storylines, we can share what we know of each artist’s unique journey, but ultimately what we will experience for ten days in January is different for each of us. It’s the spark from the filmmakers – their passion – that brings 200 unique worlds to life and, in turn, ignites the audience. The films, conversations, encounters are there to experience. And that’s what makes Sundance so magical.”

In order to connect more with digital audiences, Sundance will show several shorts on this year.  Also, nine films will visit nine cities outside of Utah in the next few days, including New York City, Seattle and Los Angeles (on January 27).  Screenings and workshops will also increase across the country and internationally in order to expand the messages and visions of the films and filmmakers. 

Sadly, the questions at the press conference were few, and most were lame.  One reporter asked if Redford, 74, in light of Larry King’s retirement, was planning to retire.  “I’m gonna die,… but I haven’t thought about retiring,” Redford replied.  He then used this opportunity to praise festival director, John Cooper, who rose up the ranks from a volunteer print runner.

Asked if Redford has a problem with Slamdance, the actor and activist replied that he had no problem with the other festival and he wished them well.

Asked about the one or two possible protests that are planned against two films, one about homosexuality, and another on red states, Cooper said that , “Stories unite us and Ideologies divide us.”  Redford added that although social activism is a part of his personal life, the festival doesn’t focus on ideology.  He added, “I’m anti-ideology. Our work tries to transcend politics one way or another. Whatever side you’re on, we try to show stories from every part of the country, and so red state, blue state doesn’t mean a whole lot to us.”