What do get a film festival on its 25th anniversary? Paper? China? Silver? Mostly, I think, you skip the gift, be eco-friendly, dress warmly, and just show up to the best of the indie film festivals, and as they say, “sit back and enjoy the show.”

Shalom and Blessings from Park City, Utah, where I arrived for my seventh, or is it my eighth, visit to the Sundance Film Festival. I can’t keep track of how many years I have come, but I am not alone. Robert Redford, speaking at the festival’s opening press conference, said that he felt that Sundance has been celebrating its 25th birthday for the past three years. No matter how old it is, the focus remains on indies and storytelling. And of course there is a little swag, but that is peripheral to the official fest.

Sundance, this year, has 19 venues that can seat 6,829 tushies at once (if you count the Salt Lake City and Ogden theaters). And the newest venue that exclusively shows documentaries is the Temple Theater, so named since is it housed in the newly built Temple Har Shalom, a growing congreagtion famous for its kavanah and “ski shul” ski in and ski out Kabbalat Shabbat program.

My trip from NYC was uneventful. There was no ditching of the jet in the Hudson River, although the flight was bumpy. There were no queen bees or loud publicists on flight or people trying to network and self promote their projects in the cabin. There did seem to be a yeshiva ski trip on my flight, which made for an interesting diversity among the passengers. There were no storms as in past trips, no delays, and I only witnessed one loud fight on the jet over overhead luggage space. I sat in the last row, and the last seat, and miraculously the tv offering on my Delta flight was “Napoleon Dynamite,” a Sundance favorite, and the music offerings included two full Israeli CD’s and three Korean Kor-pop CD’s. To top it off, my luggage was the first off baggage carousel. Sweet.

I am really excited about the offerings at the Sundance Film Festival 2009. And why not? The festival opening film is a Jewish one. “MARY AND MAX,“ is an Australian animated feature that is written and directed by Adam Elliot, an Oscar recipient and Sundance veteran. The film features the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna), Eric Bana and Tony Collette.

The claymation film is about a pen pal friendship that has endured for over two decades between Mary Dinkle, an eight year old girl in a Melbourne suburb with an absent father and drunk mother, and Max Horowitz, a 44 year old obese Jewish who lives a black and gray isolation in New York City. Max suffers from Ausperger’s Syndrome, wears a kippah, remains an athiest, and was born on a kibbutz in Israel. His diet consists of fish sticks and kugels.

Some other films with a Jewish / Israel flavor are:

“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” a documentary by two of the late Attorney Kunstler’s daughters, which explores his history of civil rights litigation, but also his defense of a mobster, accused rapists and the murderer of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Saint or sinner?

Sundance's Main St theater where Zio and His Brother had its world premiere

Sundance's Main St theater where Zion and His Brother had its world premiere

Zion and His Brothers (Zion ve’ Achiv), an Israeli feature by Eran Merav, who studied at both the Camera Obscura and the Sam Spiegel Film & TV schools in Israel. Merav is best known for Underdogs, an audience favorite of the Jewish and Israeli film festival circuit. It is a sensitive sibling drama set in Haifa, where two brothers are living a dysfunctional life with a single parent. Like Cain and Abel, or better yet, like Jacob and Esau, they do battle under the coastal train tracks which form a sort of post birth womb. The soundtrack is suspenseful and mizrachi.

The Messenger, a feature by the Israeli born writer and filmmaker, Oren Moverman. It stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as two soldiers who work for the military’s Casualty Notification Office, and are “casualties” themselves.

The list also includes a smattering of Palestinian themed films, including “Pomegranates and Myrrh“ by Najwa Najjar; and the Israeli short, “Bait” by Beit Berl teacher Michal Vinik. One world documentary, “The End of the Line,” is about the prediction that the Earth’s seafood will be depleted by 2048. I might see this in order to predict how this will affect the need for gefilte fish in forty years. I will be 88 years old by then, and I hope I can still be alive and enjoying a glass bottle of Manishewitz or Rokeach fishlets.

Worst of all, Park City’s lone hummus restaurant (Reef), is pricey and booked up each night.

Celebrity sightings so far: Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Matisyahu, and Mike White.

As for Redford, he was the highlight of the opening press conference on Thursday afternoon. Redford said that whether it has been 25 or 27 years, it has been a long time. And it isn’t about what birthday it is or the present moment, but what has come before and the time to come. “We take a long term view,” he said. “We have seen the consequences of short term thinking,” he added, taking one of several verbal jabs at the Bush Administration. Asked if Sundance was going to create a festival in Abu Dhabi, Redford said that the labs had gone international and worked in the Middle East, specifically Iran and Jordan, since the Nineties. While still in preliminary discussions with representatives from Abu Dhabi, he expects that Sundance will proceed in creating some lab or event there in the future. Oh, and then there was Spike Lee. After the press conference, I stood at a coffee bar with him and his pure white NY ball cap and discussed the Knicks. He ordered an espresso and just like that film of his, “(s)He’s Gotta Have It (the way he wants it).” He sprinkled some cinnamon in the cup and asked for some milk. Actor / Director Mike White also passed me in a hallway. He sure does say “dude” a lot, but that is easily forgiven. It just gives you the sense that he isn’t acting in his films, but just playing himself. And as for Matisyahu? Well I will fill you in on my next posting

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  • Thanks for telling us about your trip, looking forward to hearing more…I would love to make it to Sundance someday!

  • Larry, this is Chutzpah. Chutzpah, this is Larry.
    [Now that you’ve been introduced to each other, you may meet up.]