For decades now, the Sundance Film Festival has taken place in Park City, Utah, nestled between the ski hills, offering a warm respite from the outdoor cold.
It has long been home to American independent cinema, a showcase for diverse voices long before Hollywood took relatively recent notice of female filmmakers and filmmakers of colour. This year saw another drive forward, with 42% of competition films directed by women, a 4% increase over last year.
Of course, festivals have often been places where films have difficulty rising above the fray, destined to travel the circuit rather than see wide release. With the big players in VOD (Amazon and Netflix) taking over much of the bidding, replacing the likes of Miramax and the Weinstein Brothers that dominated sales for decades, there’s new opportunities for these works to live long past their premiere.
From this crop of amazing female filmmakers, here are five gems from this year’s festival.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Indian-Canadian director Nisha Ganatra teamed up with her regular collaborator Mindy Kaling on this acerbically funny look behind the scenes at a broadcast comedy show. Kaling’s script is political while still being inviting, never shying away from uncomfortable truths yet always looking to keep the audience along for the ride. Kaling’s charms have rarely been as effective, and playing against a legend like Emma Thompson as the show’s host is prime opportunity for these talents to truly shine on the big screen.
Blinded by the Light
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha captured the world’s attention with her charming Bend It Like Beckham, and she recaptures that film’s magic and more with this absolutely delightful film about a Pakistani-Brit adolescent who finds in the words and songs of Bruce Springsteen a connection to his own suburban life. Littered with songs from the boss, the film echoes the likes of The Commitments, using elements from musicals and teen comedies to tell this rapturously entertaining tale. Based on a true story, this is a wonderful feel-good film with smarts aplenty and deserving of plenty of love.
Directed by Alma Har’el
Israeli director Alma Har‘el collaborates with the film’s writer and star Shia LaBeouf in this powerful tale of a child star raised by a sometimes violent, sometimes caring father. Written by LaBeouf while in rehab, the tale could easily have been a maudlin, narcissistic exercise, but thanks to Har‘el’s direction honed by her work in documentary and Shia’s stellar script, the film exceeds all expectations. With terrific ensemble performances anchored by LaBeouf’s portrayal of the father figure, this proved to be an audience favourite at this year’s festival.
Directed by Penny Lane
Documentaries always shine at Sundance, with qualities often managing to overshadow their fiction counterparts. Few were as fun and fascinating as Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, a portrayal of an anti-religious religion and those fighting in the U.S. against the encroachment of other organized religions to affect civil society. Lane’s trademark quirkiness shines through (her last film, Nuts!, was about the implantation of goat testicles as a way of fighting impotence), and she brings us along to meet this fascinating, diabolical group of radical humanists fighting the good demonic fight.