sundance 2By Husam Asi

Every year, tens of thousands of filmmakers, film lovers, buyers, executives and party goers flock to Park City in Utah, braving the subzero temperature, to attend the Sundance Film Festival, which has become the epicentre of independent cinema since it was founded 30 years ago by Robert Redford in order to give a platform for unknown filmmakers to show and promote their movies.

In its early years the festival was small and intimate. Only hardcore film fans attended and feasted on substance movies, that never saw the light of day after the festival. But that changed in 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape screened there to critical acclaim, and then was picked up by movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, and turned a hefty profit in the box office.

This year, nearly 300 films and documentaries were screened in the festival. However, the movies that got the buzz and attention were not the unknowns and obscure, but rather the star-studded ones, that audiences jostled and shoved to see and the media clamoured to review and interview their stars.

The festival opened with Whiplash,  starring Miles Teller as a drum student at a New York music conservatory where the reigning teaching god is a sadistic purist named Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Directed by Damien Gazelle, the film made a splash at the festival due to his impressive direction, and was napped by Sony Classics.

The heat of Whiplash fizzled quickly, prompting festival goers to seek inspiration somewhere else, and they found it in Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. The movie charts the life of a Texan boy from the age of 7 to 18.

Meanwhile, previously hyped movies such as Maya Forbes’ dramedy Infinity Polar Bear, which tells the story of a bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo) raising two young girls with his wife (Zoe Saldana) and  Frank, which features invisible Michael Fassbender playing a tensely charismatic leader of an indie rock group who never takes off his large fake plaster head. Both films stood out for the performances of their stars, yet failed to win universal praise.

The former Twilight star, Kristen Stewart, has also received mixed reviews for playing a tough prison guard who forms a friendship with an inmate in Camp X-ray. The problem is not really in her delivery but with the story, which is utterly focused on the two characters’ interaction, leaving little time to explore their environment, rendering its Guantanamo setting redundant.

Sundance veteran Lynn Shelton came back with a commercial film, Laggies, which tells the story of 28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley) who is trying to find meaning in her life. Another veteran, Gregg Araki brought his 9th Sundance film, A White Bird in Blizzard, which follows teenage Kat (Shailene Woodley) as she comes of age amidst the disappearance of her disturbed trainwreck of a mother (Eva Green). Ira Sachs was also there with Love is Strange,  which enjoyed a warm reception.

Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here was another headline-grabbing film, not for its merit but for its crowd financing on the Kickstarter website.  Some of the donors/fans showed up at the premiere, demanding the promised tickets. Braff himself failed to thank his supporters in his opening speech and reportedly had flown to Park City from New York in first class. Having sold his movie, he was probably able to afford a first class ticket back home.

In contrast, Anne Hathaway (Song One) and Brit Steve Coogan (A Trip to Italy) were cramped with us in the economy section of a sold-out flight back to LA.  Their attendance had helped their movies to get noticed, but not find a buyer.

The documentaries fared slightly better. Although celebrities’ movies such as Fed Up from celebrity broadcaster Katie Couric grabbed the headlines, there were others that drew audiences solely for their merit and substance, such as Return To Homs, a harrowing tale of a young Syrian, a goalkeeper who turns into a freedom fighter. The director Talal Derki takes us inside the battle, where we witness a city being leveled to the ground and civilians being murdered arbitrarily. It feels like a Hollywood thriller, but it’s real.

Unfortunately, the press screening of Return to Homs was not a crowded one. The Sundancers  were probably lining up for hours in the freezing cold longing to see one of the star-studded pictures.

Unlike previous years, when bidding wars over movies have erupted among buyers, there has been a dearth of acquisitions this year and the amount so far paid out  was the lowest in Sundance’s history -less than $3 million. Furthermore, all the purchased movies featured stars in their cast.

It hasn’t been a completely a lost battle for obscure filmmakers, however. A vanguard of VOD outlets, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, has invaded Park City seeking to enrich their online libraries.  However, their pay is so humiliatingly meager, one filmmaker moaned that he wouldn’t be able to afford his rent with the money he was offered.

Sundance Film Festival hasn’t discovered  a Tarantino or a Soderberg this year, leaving experts scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Some blamed it on the dizzying number of movies and others on lack of originality. Whatever the reason, hundreds of hopeful filmmakers will be leaving empty handed and their movies will probably be forgotten.

Perhaps, the lesson is that quality on its own doesn’t sell, you must have a hook in your movie, in order to break through the gigantic clutter. Otherwise you’d better feature a star to stand by you on the red carpet, even in the Mecca of independent film.



Former Golden Globe winner Robert DeNiro is turning the attention at Sundance to his late father Robert DeNiro Snr., who irobert deniros the subject of a documentary the actor has produced.

  He seldom talks about his private life but the 70-year-old Golden Globe winner is now revealing intimate details about the life of his late father, who was a gay artist.

“Remembering The Artist Robert DeNiro Sr.” is an HBO documentary about the actor’s father and DeNiro even reads passages from his father’s journals, which detail how he left the Godfather star’s mother after he realized he was gay.

“My intention wasn’t to make a TV movie, I just wanted to make something for my kids, my family, so they could learn what a great artist their grandfather was,”  said DeNiro.

“Then HBO picked it up and financed it, so here we are”. DeNiro, who won a Golden Globe in 1981 for Raging Bull and was named the Cecil B De Mille Award winner in 2011, is not new to Sundance: “I have been here a few times before, and I love this festival,” he said. “In fact, I love being at festivals, the people participate a lot and there’s always a nice and friendly atmosphere”.

Airing in June 2014 on HBO, the 40 minute documentary tells the story of DeNiro Sr., born in 1922. After meeting in Hofmann school in NY with his future wife Virginia – a painter as well – DeNiro Sr. joined the Abstract Expressionist movement. With Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline among others, these artists ended up spearheading the post-WWII art scene, but De Niro’s work was quickly obscured by the powerful Pop Art movement lead by Andy Warhol. Struggling with his latent homosexuality, De Niro Sr. separated from his wife and moved to Paris, where he found himself in a difficult situation, often helped by his son Robert, already a successful actor. De Niro Sr. went on painting tirelessly until his death in 1993 from prostate cancer.


“One of the things I regret is not having being able to take care of him more promptly,” said a dewy-eyed De Niro, who flew to Park City with his producing partner Jane Rosenthal and the film’s two directors, Perri Pelts and Geeta Gandbhir.


“I also was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago but I took care of it immediately and was able to defeat it. Today I’m fine, and I wish my father could have lived and painted a little bit longer”.


De Niro attended the Q&A after the screening at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City. Later he spent more than an hour speaking with guests at the opening of an art exhibit in Park City dedicated to his father, where over 20 water colors by Robert De Niro Sr. will be on sale throughout the festival. “To my eyes my father was a great artist,” says De Niro while sipping on an ice-cold Martini, “He was uncompromising. He would send gallery owners to hell if they exhibited the work of artists he disliked”.


  Congratulations to the Sundance Film Festival winners!!!

The HFPA is proud to be an annual supporter of the Sundance Institute and their ongoing artistic development programs which nurtures emerging independent-minded filmmakers, many of whom go on to participate in the annual Sundance Film Festival.

“Every year the Sundance Film Festival brings to light exciting new directions and fresh voices in independent film, and this year is no different,” said festival director John Cooper at the awards ceremony. “While these awards further distinguish those that have had the most impact on audiences and our jury, the level of talent showcased across the board at the Festival was really impressive, and all are to be congratulated and thanked for sharing their work with us.”

This year’s awards include:

Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary: THE HOUSE I LIVE IN.

Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD.

Audience Award,  U.S. Documentary: THE INVISIBLE WAR / U.S.A.

Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic: THE SURROGATE / U.S.A.

World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary: THE LAW IN THESE PARTS/ Israel.

World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic: VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN/ Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Spain.

World Cinema Audience Award, Documentary: SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN/ Sweden, United Kingdom.

World Cinema Audience Award, Dramatic: VALLEY OF SAINTS / India, U.S.A.

The Best of NEXT <=> Audience Award: SLEEPWALK WITH ME / U.S.A.

Directing Award, Dramatic:?MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.

Directing Award, Documentary:?THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES.

World Cinema Directing Award, Dramatic: TEDDY BEAR.

World Cinema Directing Award, Documentary:?5 BROKEN CAMERAS.

Waldo Scott Screenwriting Award:?SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

World Cinema Screenwriting Award:?YOUNG & WILD.

Special Jury Prize, producing: SMASHED.

Special Jusy Prize, ensemble cast: THE SURROGATE.


Earlier in the festival, the Mahindra Global Filmmaking Awards were presented in recognition of emerging independent filmmakers from around the world and the projects they are developing:  Etienne Kallos/ VRYSTAAT (FREE STATE) from South Africa; Ariel Kleiman/ PARTISAN, from Australia; Dominga Sotomayor/ LATE TO DIE YOUNG, from Chile; and Shonali Bose/ MARGARITA, WITH A STRAW, from India.




  In the same way that the HFPA is not just about the Golden Globes, SUNDANCE is not just a film festival. Founded in 1981 by Robert Redford, the Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to nurturing emerging filmmakers through year-long programs around the world and to providing a platform for them to present their works – the Sundance Film Festival. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is proud to be an annual supporter of the Sundance Institute and every year several members attend to meet up-and-coming filmmakers.