Sundance Film Festival 2007

By Lucinda Henderson and Brian Robinson

in-the-shadow-of-the-moon-daniel-sington.jpgIn the Shadow of the Moon, 2007

A report from this year's festival and a spotlight on some of the British films screened

FEST WRAP – Sundance 07

The buzz before Sundance 2007 seemed to indicate that the film content was going to be depressing and expectations for sales were low. This was very much in tune with the atmosphere where an unseasonable anti-cyclone squatted over the area a week before the Festival and remained there enveloping Salt Lake City in a yellow brown smog which worsened day by day. But in Park City itself, 3000 feet higher, the sun shone. Huge crowds were out to see some of the 125 dramatic and documentary feature length films chosen from 3,287 submissions or the 71 shorts selected from 4,445.

A specific effort had been made to play down celebrity hijacking of the festival with “Focus on Film” lapel badges widely worn to encourage emphasis on film-makers, films and cinema-lovers. The programming reflected a determination to be serious, with prime spots being given to highly political pieces. Chicago 10, Brett Morgen’s documentary on the anti war protests around the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the subsequent conspiracy trial, was given the opening night spot at Park City. Yet even before this, Robert Redford had television networks buzzing with a mildly controversial impromptu press conference given at the Egyptian Theatre. Anti-Iraq war documentaries in the programme included Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and No End in Sight. The Jury documentary prizes followed this political theme with Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) picking the up the Grand Jury Prize for Jason Kohn’s powerful depiction of violence and political corruption in Brazil. Eva Mulvad and Anja Al Erhayem’s Enemies of Happiness scooped the World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize for their portrait of Malalai Joya, a 27 year old woman elected to the first Afghan Parliament despite death threats and intimidation during her campaign.

However, audiences seemed to want to go for softer more personal accounts giving the Audience Documentary Award to Hear and Now in which Irene Taylor Brodsky portrays the challenges faced by her parents who decided to have cochlear implant surgery after 65 years of being deaf. Grace is Gone may not jerk the tears very subtly in places but was winner of the Audience Dramatic Award and a screenwriting award. This tale, with gender twist, consists of an ex-military father trying to come to terms with news of the death of his wife, serving in Iraq and his problems telling his two daughters of their mother’s death. This home front angle clearly found more resonance at Sundance than overseas aspects of the war.

British endeavour was particularly well represented and there were several that made a big impact with the audiences. In the premiere slot Jim Broadbent’s splendid performance as Longford, seen already by UK viewers on Channel 4, was very well received. In the Shadow of the Moon, directed by David Sington, won the World Documentary Audience Award, and wowed audiences with the photography and the appearance of several astronauts at various screenings. Son of Rambow, also caught the imagination with its deft light touch.

The first Sunday through to Tuesday created a Festival fever of acquisitions with more than $30 million of sales in two days. In the Shadow of the Moon and Son of Rambow both clinched multi-million dollar deals during this window. Sales for 15 films during the Festival topped $50 million in total.

What about the celebrities defying the Focus on Film badges? Some appearances like Gwyneth Paltrow supporting The Good Night, directed by brother Jake, were to be expected. But Steven Spielberg also came to support the Paltrow family. For those who enjoy playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, try linking Justin Timberlake, Steve Buscemi, Sienna Miller, and Anthony Hopkins who all joined Kevin in Town for Sundance 07.

SPOTLIGHT: In the Shadow of the Moon (dir. David Sington)

The World Premiere of In the Shadow of the Moon was the first film on our Sundance 2007 schedule. Sundance was its usual controlled chaos. Dodgy technology with a printer which had failed to print our tickets meant shuttling a few small steps back and forth across a car park in temperatures of 15 below zero for permission to be seated in the launch vehicle, Cinema IV at Holiday Village, Park City, Utah.

in-the-shadow-of-the-moon-daniel-sington-2.jpgLast man on the Moon: astronaut Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) on the Moon 14th December 1972

In the Shadow of the Moon is a documentary on the epic struggle of NASA to circumnavigate and then land human beings on the surface of another world. Told largely through the recollections of ten of the astronauts who flew the Apollo missions, the documentary juxtaposes interviews of men in their late 70s and 80s with lots of original footage, some of it never seen before, and never composed like this.

Three things stand out. The frailty of the technology is brought home by Jim Lovell’s (Apollo 8 and 13) description of the test rockets which were failing in the mid 60s, as the men were training for manned space flight. On the split screen, these rockets are sizzling into oblivion as he articulates the likelihood of a short career. The risk was re-emphasized in January 1967 when Apollo 1 crew members Chaffee, White and Grissom died in a fire in their spacecraft during a simulated countdown on the launch-pad. Compared to the 21st century, the computer memory on the Apollo 11 was 36kb. Listening to President Nixon’s message which was to be transmitted only in the event that the Apollo 11 moon landing mission ended in disaster, brings home the supreme danger and daring of space exploration forty years ago.

Secondly, the esprit de corps of the supremely talented astronauts emerges clearly 40 years on. Many of them were former test pilots who felt driven to push themselves further once Alan Shepard had pursued the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin into manned space flight. Yet the camaraderie extends beyond the tightly knit world of NASA astronauts as Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17) describes the guilt he felt at missing Vietnam military service where many of his comrades were serving and dying. “That was my war! Those were my buddies!” The astronauts come across as lively, well-balanced men who have led interesting lives in which their space exploration experiences are defining chapters. The personal detail in many of the interviews allows us to gain greater perspectives on individual astronauts as distinct from seeing them as mere deliverers of the Apollo programme.

in-the-shadow-of-the-moon-daniel-sington-3.jpgIn the Shadow of the Moon, 2007

Finally, the greatest omission is a lack of an interview with Neil Armstrong who was invited to participate many times but declined. Yet in a strange way it makes the documentary more compelling. Armstrong’s extraordinary abilities, his calm under extreme pressure, his leadership qualities are described fully by several of the other interviewees. The outcome is a series of displaced narrators, who provide a rounded view of Armstrong’s contribution without it dominating the work.

Because the Apollo programme is such a defining decade in American history, applying to Sundance and holding the premiere of this British film there was clearly as an astute decision. Dave Scott (Apollo 9 and 15), who had such a key role in developing the film and persuading fellow astronauts to participate, attended the Premiere’s Q & A at Holiday Village where the work was greeted with a standing ovation. Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11) attended a later screening.

On Monday 22nd January we caught up with Director David Sington at the UK Film Council’s Sundance reception. He was running on adrenaline having had only an hour’s sleep following a 4 am conclusion in selling all North American rights to Thinkfilm for an estimated $2 million dollars. “It was a quintessential experience for a Sundance virgin,” he said, “with rival bidders on different floors in a monster sized condo.” Warner Independent and several other bidders were rumoured to be interested in the film. In the Shadow of the Moon benefits from viewing on a large screen and we hope that it achieves the distribution which its universal message deserves.

Director: David Sington, UK 2006, 100 min

SPOTLIGHT: Son of Rambow (dir. Garth Jennings)

When Will Proudfoot is temporarily turfed out of his geography class because the doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren do not allow him watch even educational TV, let alone movies, he finds himself sharing the cavernous school corridor with Lee Carter who has been booted out of the neighbouring classroom for very different reasons. This initiates a relationship initially based on guile and duplicity on the part of Carter, the school terror, which later metamorphoses into real friendship. Garth Jennings admits that this unlikely partnership was influenced by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy.

son-of-rambow-garth-jennings.jpgSon of Rambow, 2007

Taking a child’s viewpoint is a long established technique dating back to early examples such as The Go Between. But in that case and later films like Empire of the Sun, it is often used to throw a perspective on darker aspects of adult behaviour or to generate humorous bowdlerisations of adult behaviour as in Bugsy Malone. Son of Rambow is different in that it is lighter, romantic and unashamedly focuses on a children’s cast encapsulating an exuberant celebration of adolescence as they team up to create a movie from the competing visions of Will and Lee. Having introduced Will to his first movie, a pirate copy of Rambo: First Blood, Lee initially becomes the director with Will taking on the role of stuntman. Subsequently, with the arrival of French exchange student, Didier Revol and his adoring fan club of English pupils, the film is transformed in scale, threatening the relationship between the two boys.

Remember how long those corridors seemed when you first arrived at “big” school, how huge that hill was that you trekked up aged 12, or how large that lake was you fell into, when mucking about? Son of Rambow is filmed with a sweeping epic style that opens out into the prairies of the child’s vision. It presents a romantic view of growing up forged around making movies. The 1980s setting ensures that it will appeal to parents born in the seventies as well as their children. The chunky props from that era, such as the video cameras with their ever dying batteries, offer a simplicity which could not be replicated today. It is a world of endless afternoons and boundless imagination, acted out in that peculiar juxtaposition of English countryside and industrial wasteland which most children who are not Chelsea-tractored to school have the ability to discover.

son-of-rambow-garth-jennings-2.jpgSon of Rambow, 2007

Underneath all this fun the film tackles issues such as leadership, coping with peers, and the fickle nature of popularity. Will’s behaviour threatens the family’s position in their Church. The Elders insist that Will’s single mother impose increasingly punitive sanctions in order not to be Shut Up, as expulsion from the Brethren is termed.

Will’s imagination explodes into his sketch book, and jottings in school text books, a cornucopia of images from popular culture, usually violent, but expressed in a child-like non-threatening way. Whilst he is essentially a good boy, there is a strong theme of escapism, as his frustrated creativity is released. In the absence of his father, Rambo becomes Will’s role model. The iconic images of Rambo: First Blood, allow him to connect with his peers in ways hitherto impossible.

Some of the sequences such as the flying dog add a perfect levity. Others such as the Sixth Form Common Room scenes reflect a lower school imagination of a bacchanalian life anticipated a few years hence, rather than the banality of what actually happens behind those closed doors. The whole impact is a celebration of youth, exuberant flights of fancy overcoming lack of resources for film making. Anything is possible.

Son of Rambow took a sizeable team to Sundance. I looked in vain for them at the UK Film Council bash on Monday 22nd where their poster sat lonely on the wall of tent above the canapés. Their first screening was due 15 minutes later at the Eccles Theatre. More to the point, it would appear that they were already being drawn into a bidding war which would eventually result in a sale to Paramount Vantage for over $7 million. See it when you can.

Director / Screenwriter: Garth Jennings, UK 2006, 94 mins

Lucinda Henderson and Brian Robinson are leisure consultants specialising in film. 2007 was their third visit to the Sundance Film Festival.