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A Tour of Sundance's Side Categories

By Jeremy Mathews
Quick Jump
    World Dramatic
World Documentary

This is the second half of Jeremy's Sundance Film Festival rundown. To check out the first half, see print issue no. 6 or visit it here.

While the Sundance Film Festival's main focus is always on the U.S. competition entries and the premieres, there are always some surprise hits—and sometimes the biggest hits of the year—in the side categories. Films like "The Blair Witch Project," "The Full Monty," "Whale Rider" and "Tarnation" were noticed in the World Cinema, Midnight, American Spectrum (now Spectrum) and Frontier categories.

Of course, there are about 40 films in these categories, so finding the great ones is the hard part.

This year marks the second year that the World Cinema category has been a competition. The festival administration made the change to show that, even though it was started as a showcase for U.S. independent film, Sundance has a place all the other countries in the world combined as well. But rest assured, if I'm a bit sarcastic about the new competitors, it's only because the new awards made the end-of-fest ceremony five hours long.

The 2006 festival also marks the consolodation of the American Spectrum and imaginatively named Special Screenings into one big, bold catagory called Spectrum. This category basically consists of films that couldn't be fit into the crowded competition categories or were deemed ineligable due to the festival's obsession with having most to all of the competition entries be premieres.

World Dramatic

The World Dramatic Competition category, oft-maligned for not being quite as good as that of festivals devoted to world cinema, brings in films from every continent but Antartica by both established and first-time directors.

From France, Gela Babluani's "13 Tzameti" is a surreal nightmare ignited when its hero follows instructions meant for someone else. From Denmark, director Christoffer Boe ("Reconstruction") offers "Allegro," about a pianist who discovers how the choices he made have affected the world. Spain's "Princesas," directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa ("Mondays in the Sun"), explores the country's prostitution.

Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica," from Bosnia-Herzegovina, portrays a mother and daughter trying to survive a devastating war.

A few of the films are English-language, but only one sounds quirky enough to become this year's audience favorite. "No. 2," directed by Toa Fraser from New Zealand, depicts a woman who reminds her family how to party.

From South Africa, Mark Dornford-May's modern-day-Christ story "Son of Man" is from the same ensemble responsible for the well-received Berlin winner "U-Carmen." From Canada, Julia Kwan's "Eve & the Fire Horse" is about a Chinese immigrant family in Vancouver.

Argentina, which has had an interesting output in recent years, has "Nine Queens" director Fabian Bielinsky's "The Aura," about a taxidermist who stumbles from his humdrum life into the perfect crime. From Brazil, Andrucha Waddington brings "The House of Sand," which follows a woman's life through three generations. Carlos Bolado's "Solo Dios Sabe" connects Brazil and Mexico with an art student from the former and a rogue journalist from the latter who tour both countries.

Other entries include Auraeus Solito's "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" from the Philippines, Jocelyne Saab's "Kiss Me Not on the Eyes" from Lebanon, Zhang Yuan's "Little Red Flowers" from China, Claudia Llosa's "Madeinusa" from Peru, TV director Max Makowski's "One Last Dance" from Singapore and Cho Chang-Ho's "The Peter Pan Formula" from South Korea.

World Documentary

The World Documentary lineup, in its third year, offers voice to the cultures that U.S. audiences rarely hear from. Some films are political, others simply offer a glimpse into life in a different land.

Three films study different forms of artistic expression. "By the Ways: A Journey with William Eggleston" by French director Cédric Laty journeys to the United States to the home of the "father of color photography." From Australia Gillian Armstrong's "Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst" studies the life of the flamboyant design pioneer. From the U.K, Julian Temple's "Glastonbury" captures 30 years of a music festival and the social changes that accompany it each year.

Many of the other films are political. Korean-Japanese director Yang Yonghi looks at her father's stubborn and destructive loyalty to North Korea in "Dear Pyongyang." U.K. director Rex Bloomstein's "KZ" explores the site of a German concentration camp and how its history darkens its present.

Joining the U.S. competition documentaries that deal with the war in Iraq, "The Short Life of José Antonio Guttierrez," a Swiss-German coproduction by Heidi Specogna, studies the life of the first U.S. soldier to die in the conflict.

Two movies offer different views of the immigrant experience. "I for India," by Sandhya Suri, looks at migration through super-8 films and letters sent between India and England for 40 years. Mexican director Tin Dirdamal's "De Nadie" studies a Central American emmigrant traveling through Mexico on her way to the United States.

Also from Mexico, Juan Carlos Rulfo's "In the Pit" reveals the life of freeway construction workers. "Black Gold," directed by Marc and Nick Francis from the U.K, also tells the story of unknown lower-class employees as it explores the structure and exploits of the coffee trade.

Other films deal with religion in different societies. Israeli director Yoav Shamir's "5 Days" follows seven key figures in the evacuation of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Two films from Switzerland study Buddhist culture. Luc Shaedler's "Angry Monk - Reflections on Tibet" studies a rebellious Tibetan monk. "The Giant Buddhas," directed by Christian Frei, is about the famous statues in Afghanistan.

Other titles include Philip Groening's "Into Great Silence" from Germany, Sabina Guzzanti's "Viva Zapatero from Italy and Brian Hill's "Songbirds" from England.


The Midnight section includes films that well, fit well in the midnight movie niche. Sex, comedy, gore and music are the fun, sometimes campy subjects.

In the sex department, "Destricted" is a collection of erotic shorts by some of today's most controversial directors, including Gaspar Noe ("Irreversible") and Larry Clark ("Kids").

"The Foot Fist Way" follows the comedic antics of a Tae Kwon Do instructor who finds out that his wife has been cheating on him and takes it out on everyone.

This year's horror titles include "Subject Two" by Philip Chidel, serial-killer film "Salvage," by Josh and Jeff Crook, and Roger Ingraham's vampire flick "Moonshine."

A night in which the Beastie Boys handed out 50 HI 8 cameras to a crowd in Madison Square Garden comes to fruition in Nathanial Hornblower's "Awesome, I Fuckin' Shot That!" Who wouldn't want to see a movie shot by people who don't know what they're doing on low quality equipment? Another music documentary, Paul Rachman's "American Hardcore" documents nine years of hardcore punk rock.


I have seen programmers introduce films in what was then the American Spectrum category by stating that the category isn't a second-place selection for films that didn't make the competition. In the same introductions, however, they've insinuated that the film deserved to be in competition, hence reinforcing the whole second-place stigma. This year, as the category expands to Spectrum, it has three or four entires from outside of the United States, and a few entires with big names attached to them.

I saw two of the films when they screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which pretty much disqualifies them from competition. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's surrealist poem "Battle in Heaven" baffled, mesmerized and ultimately divided Cannes audiences. "Factotum," directed by Bent Hamer ("Kitchen Stories") won more consistent acclaim, with one of the best performances of Matt Dillon's career as Charles Bukowski alter ego Hank Chinaski.

"The Proposition," directed by John Hillcoat and written by rock star Nick Cave, stars Guy Pearce and Emily Watson in a reportedly violent Australian epic set during the end of the bushranger era. Michael Rappaport stars in Jeremy Passmore and Hal Haberman's "Special," about an experimental anti-depressant.

Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould star in editor-turned writer/director Mia Goldman's "Open Window," about a romance torn apart by an act of violence. Nick Nolte and Trevor Morgan star in "Off the Black," James Ponsoldt's story about a teenage baseball player who befriends an aging umpire.

Another coming-of-age story, Jason Matzner's "Dreamland," starring Agnes Bruckner of "Blue Car," follows a girl who lives in a trailer in the desert and has to decide whether to care for her sick father or follow her dreams. Tanuj Chopra's "Punching at the Sun" is a (here it comes) coming-of-age story about an angry South Asian teen in Queens, New York.

Anders Thomas Jensen's "Adam's Apples" is a dark comedy about a neo-Nazi and a devout priest. Sounds hilarious. Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart" follows a Pakistani rock star turned donut cart salesman.

And it wouldn't be Sundance without politics. Thai director Ham Tran ("The Anniversary) deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam War in "Journey from the Fall." Like several of the fest's documentaries, Pablo Veliz's truth-inspired "La Tragedia de Macario" peaks into the lives illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Again like the documentaries, some of the films deal with religion. "Forgiving the Franklins," by Jay Floyd, finds a family at odds with its conservative Southern home town after an accident changes their spirituality. Tony Krawitz's "Jewboy" also looks at religion, as an orthodox man tries to find his place in the world.

The Spectrum section also hosts several new documentaries. Most notably, the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler's "Who Needs Sleep?" shows the harsh effects of sleep deprivation on the overworked.

But we should get back to politics. Davis Guggenheim's "A Matter of Degrees" follows President Elect Al Gore's visually inventive and urgent multimedia presentation on global warming. Chris Paine also tackles environmental issues in "EV Confidential: Who Killed the Electric Car?"

"Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon," directed by Peteer Richardson, is about a rift between conservative and liberal values in a small timber town. "All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise" documents Rosie and Kellie O'Donnell's "floating utopia" of homosexual families.

As in the Midnight and other documentary categories, this category features studies of musicians. In "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," director Lian Lunson tries to pin down the elusive and brilliant folk singer/songwriter. Byron Hurt's "Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hop-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture" has such a long title that I don't need to write anything else. And drummer Stewart Copeland offers the most intimate look in "Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out," which uses the super-8 footage he shot on tour with the band in the '80s.

Two other documentaries are about artists. "Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" follows the personal, political and controversial life of the "Angels in America" writer. "What Remains" studies photographer Sally Mann.


The Frontier category is reserved for experimental films, or films that aren't really experimental, but are still a bit too strange for the other categories.

The selection's most intriguing entry this year comes under the sub-category Frontier Live. "Our Second Date," by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, uses robots and a miniature movie set to show all the aspects of movie making in one room.

"Wild Tigers I Have Known," by Cam Archer, looks like a tale of sex and unrequited love starring a 13-year-old boy. Betzy Bromberg's "A Darkness Swallowed" is a "bio-meta-physical musical" about cellular memory (I don't know what any of that means). "Cinnamon," directed by Kevin Everson, is about drag racing in different walks of life.

Sharon Lockhart's "Pine Flat" and Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" both sound like movies that consist mainly of characters standing by landscapes.

jeremy [at]


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