Sundance Film Fest 1997: Fads and Trends

As far as industry heat and discovery of new talent are concerned, the Sundance Film Festival now ranks second only to Cannes on the international film map. Every year critics come away from Sundance with a list of young filmmakers who bear close watching: Steven Soderbergh in 1989, Quentin Tarantino in 1992, Kevin Smith in 1994, Neil LaBute in 1997, to name a few.

As the country’s prime showcase for indies, Sundance has been instrumental in displaying new trends, new paradigms and new styles in American cinema. Though there are half a dozen series in the festival, the main event–what really draws Hollywood to Park City–is the dramatic competition, which this year consists of 16 features.

The festival’s goal has always been to celebrate the maverick, not-for-profit vision of indie filmmakers. Programming director Geoffrey Gilmore has repeatedly stated that the aim is “quality and diversity, not commercial viability.” Showcasing the work of women, black and other minority directors follows from the agenda that was set by Sundance’s guru, Robert Redford. For Redford, “the narrowing of the main part of the industry opens up the other part of the industry, which is diversity, which is what independent filmmaking is all about.”


Diversity is not an issue anymore. Every year, about 3 or 4 films in the dramatic category are directed by women, 2 by African-American, 2 are gay and lesbian-themed, and so on. The more relevant question is to what extent the Sundance selection reflects the best of what’s submitted for consideration.

To be sure, there is no shortage of films to choose from. As a result of the boom in indie production, more films are made than ever before. In 1997, 700 features were appraised by Sundance for the two series: 500 in the dramatic and 200 in the documentary. This makes the programming fiercely competitive, but does it guarantee high-caliber movies

Year after year, Sundance observers are raising the question of to what extent the competition films are representative of the large pool of movies submitted To what extent Sundance spots and promotes the best of the crop “The only way to find out,” says L.A. Times’ critic, Kenneth Turan, “is to establish a shadow committee of blue-ribbon critics and to see whether the critics’ selection matches that of the programming committee. This is an admittably impractical, if not impossible task.

At the same time, Turan and other critics hold that it’s possible to describe a distinctive “Sundance sensibility,” a unique “Sundance aesthetics” that often mark the kinds of movies shown. How else to explain the fact that year after year the dramatic competition exhibits a disproportionately large number of coming-of-age movies.

Coming of Age

If there was a unifying theme to many of the 1997 films, it concerned young people having to face maturity and adulthood. At least half a dozen films addressed those issues, including the familiar and flawed Arresting Gena; the sensitive lesbian meller, All Over Me; the gay drama, The Delta; the bleak Southern gothic, Eye of God; and of course, Hurricane, the picture that swept three awards, including a directing nod to Morgan J. Freeman.

Hurricane (which MGM will release later this year) also won cinematography award for Enrique Chediak and split the audience award with Love Jones, a glossy romance set among a group of sophisticated African-Americans. An urban melodrama about the dreams and anxieties of a sensitive boy growing up in a rough New York environment, Hurricane was a Sundance movie par excellence.

The protagonists of other films last year, such as Going All the Way or Strays, were not adolescents, but they too were immature men who needed to grow up and gain a better sense of their identities and their lives.

In all of these films, the values, concerns, and worries of the younger generation are explored by directors who are themselves twentysomething. Notes Turan: “A sizable portion of directors are first-timers in their 20s who display the tentativeness and anomie that go with that age. Their films seem fearful of feeling too much, of engaging the viewer on an intellectual level.”

Not surprisingly, the 1997 Grand Jury prize went to Jonathan Nossiter’s Sunday, one of the few films to deal unapologetically with concerns of middle age. This story of misunderstanding, hope and despair centers on a frustrated British actress who mistakes a destitute resident of a homeless shelter for a famous filmmaker. Critic Turan speculates that the jury was “reacting perhaps against the relentlessly juvenile sensibility and subject matter of most of the films in competition.”