Sundance 2010

Sundance 2010

Films, filmmakers, actors, others, and snow came to Park City, Utah for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and many of the films are of Jewish and Israeli interest. As snow fell atop already fallen snow, the festival opened not with a traditional Opening Night feature, but with three film events: a narrative, a documentary, and a shorts program. That was just one of several ways that the festival organizers are trying to “RE”new, “RE”vitalize, and “RE”generate the festival, and “RE”turn it to its indie roots.

John Cooper, the long term festival staffer and newly appointed festival director, views the fest as a “great independent pause between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.” I guess in my terms, the fest is like the Days of (cinematic) Awe that are between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

J. Cooper (l) and R. Redford (r) open the fest

J. Cooper (l) and R. Redford (r) open the fest

The festival opened Thursday with a press conference by Robert Redford, who opined that the festival was getting staid and scared of trying new things and was creatively “in “danger of flat-lining.” For this reason, Sundance is shaking things up in 2010. One change is its section for “Next” films, films that are low-budget or no-budget; a partnership with YouTube to show films; and even a 3D film. Yes, Sundance will screen a 3D film, albeit it is a documentary and about toads. See it before lunch.

Redford, paraphrased a poem by T. S. Elliot., “The Four Quartets,” which ends with the idea that we must return to the beginning with new fresh eyes and see it anew, when it reads,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sort of like the rabbis, who tell us to turn and turn the Torah, to see it from various angles and facets with new eyes.

James Franco as Ginsberg in Howl

James Franco as Ginsberg in Howl

As for Jewish films, there are plenty. The festival opened with “Howl,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Set in 1957, it is the story of Allen Ginsberg and his gamechanging poem, “Howl.” The filmmakers began the project as a documentary, a form with which they are familiar. They are the directors of award winning documentaries on the “celluloid closet” and Harvey Milk. They had been approached by Ginsberg’s estate to make a film to mark the 50th anniversary of the poem. After much effort, they decided to turn it into a narrative feature film with documentary-like aspects. James Franco, who Adam Sandler would point out is half-Jewish, stars as the gay, Jewish, Kaddish-reciting, beat-movement poet, Allen Ginsberg.

Another greatly anticipated film is “Holy Rollers,” directed by Kevin Asch. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as a young Hasid who, angry at his father’s failing economic status, turns to the drugs trade, and with other Hasidic youth, act as drug mules to smuggle Ecstasy to the US from Amsterdam in the late 90’s. A shanda? yes. But based on the true events of the Israeli grug traffickers and their scheme to use young Hasidic men and woman as drug mules. It is a story of faith and “blind faith.”

Redford (r), mensch, plunges into crowd to embrace Roger Ebert(l)

Redford (r), mensch, plunges into crowd to embrace Roger Ebert(l)

Documentaries of special interest include “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” about Jack Abramoff, the Washington DC super lobbyist and observant Jew who was convicted of corruption and fraud; “Freedom Riders,” directed by Stanley Nelson, about the 1961 fight against segregation in the American South; “Joan River – A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, about the private dramas of comedian and entrepreneur, Joan Rivers; “A Film Unfinished,” a documentary by Yael Hersonski, is a German/Israel co-production about the Nazi-produced propaganda films of the Warsaw Ghetto, and their later postwar discovery and use by historians; and “Fix Me” by Raed Andoni, an Arabic language documentary set in Ramallah that follows the filmmaker through twenty therapy sessions as he tries to cure his condition of being Palestinian.

More on these films, and the Israeli filmmakers with shorts in the festival in my next posting.

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