Sundance Film Festival

I’m at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. It’s a great place to see some of the very best independent films and to meet the stars, writers, directors, producers. I am going to write a diary with my own opinions annd feelings about the films – my little contribution to highlighting the often great work that is done outside the big blockbusters and major studios

‘Circumstance’ A story of awakening sexuality, culture clashes and family life set in Iran. My own life, with my Kashmiri family origins, upbringing in Scotland and early career in Indian cinema always draws me to this type of subject.

Circumstance has already won awards and attracted some rave reviews and I can’t wait to see it myself.

Here is my diary:

Day 1

Reached Salt Lake City late night. Enjoyed the drive to my accommodation. The mountains, the snow…its just beautiful.

Day 2

Got up early  and left the condo at 8am to watch an early show of British film ‘Tryannosaur’, directed by the actor Paddy Considine, starring Peter Mullan And Olivia Colman. This was on my must see list as it is a British film and I love Peter Mullan. Boy did it exceed my expectations. Almost harrowingly brutal from the opening scene, it grabs you and keeps you till the end credits.  It’s the story of a violent, tormented man from the inner estates trying to seek redemption in a Christian charity shop worker he runs into one day while fleeing a fight.  He soon realizes her life is not as idyllic as he initially assumed. The unconventional love story of these two lost souls transcends their bleak circumstances and leaves us with a film that becomes a beautifully profound experience.

Both actors gave the most amazing heart-wrenching performances. I definitely think I have started on a high note and this is going to be one of the best films at Sundance this year.

Although it is set in Yorkshire, it transported me straight back to growing up in Glasgow.  I asked the director about this after the screening and he said the original short film on which the feature was made was set in  Govan, Glasgow.  It really has that gritty inner estate feel too it. The director has done a great job. This film is uncompromising and quite spectacular. Big thumbs up.

Next went to watch a film called ‘Like Crazy’ which has been having quite some buzz around it. Directed by Drake Doremus, the guy who gave us ‘Douchebag’, it stars Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones and Jennifer Laurence. Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead are feature prominently.

It’s the story an American guy and a British girl who fall madly in love while studying in L.A.  They are each other’s first love and when it’s time for her to leave, they will do anything to hold onto that love.  She overstays her visa and as a result is not allowed to go back to America. They are forced into a long-distance relationship and their perfect love is tested.

Whilst I enjoyed the very honest performances, I have to say it did not totally work for me. The film is touching in that it is about the fragility and impermanence of relationships. Maybe it was a result of  the come-down from the adrenalin rush that I had experienced watching ‘Tyrannosaur, but I found the pace a bit slow. My friends felt the romance was awkward. After a breakout performance in ‘Winter’s Bone’ Jennifer Laurence doesn’t have much to do in this film. Felicity Jones is definitely one to look out for. She is enthralling to watch. Probably needs a second viewing and the right mood!

Lastly I went to see an Indian film called ‘Gandu’, which is a part of the Slamdance festival. It blew my mind.  Just to provide some immediate perspective, Gandu means asshole.  Directed by Calcutta based Q, as he likes to be called, It is a Bengali movie about today’s unaffected youth through the story of a junkie loser. It combines Indian vulnerability with social realism. It is made up with elements of Bengali rap, petty crime, masturbation and sex – and porn scenes. Filled with expletives, be warned it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It is very in your face. But if you like adventurous off track films then you might want to check this out. The lead actor is an amazing find.

I can only say this film was totally mental!  Shot in black and white, it is intentionally challenging and controversial,  so explicit that it certainly pushes the edge as far as Indian cinema goes it  has caught the attention and imagination already and is bound to cause a real stir. Strokes of genius.  A lot of madness.  Has to be seen to be believed.

Day 3

Went to see a morning screening of the film ‘Higher Ground’ which one of our friends is a producer for.

Directed by and starring the actress Vera Farmiga, it charts the spiritual journey of a woman, Corine, through life while embracing and exploring her own humanity. Events in her younger life throw her into the arms of a musician at high school. Teenage pregnancy and marriage push aside her dreams of becoming a writer. An incident propels her and her husband to join a small fundamentalist community. But soon some of its more conservative tenets start to leave her unsettled, resulting in a crisis of faith, which turns their world upside down.

I related well to this film. The director tackled the complex issues with clarity. Growing up in what became an increasingly religious community I understood those feeling of isolation. Of wanting to belong, of feeling like an outsider because you cant digest what everyone else accepts so readily. I found it sensitive, poignant and touching.

Panel discussion on the power of story.

Last night I saw a comedy ‘My Idiot Brother’, directed by Jesse Peretz. It has a good star cast led by Paul Dudd and is about a guy who looks for the good in every situation and the best in every person. As a result he always lands in hot water and so do those around him.  He lands in jail, gets dumped by his girlfriend, loses his beloved dog. While he is trying to get back on his feet he is passed from one sister to another and his best intentions produce disastrous results which bring the family into chaos but then ultimately a sense of clarity.

It’s a sweet film about a nice guy who the world writes off as a loser because he is so honest and naive. His goodness is his Achilles heel. I’m sure we have all been there when we have told friends the truth, thinking it will set everyone free and instead got shot for being the messenger.Cute film, not taxing on the brain. Good time passer.

Day 4

In the afternoon I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, it is about a girl who escapes a cult and returns to stay with her sister and sister’s husband.  She lies to them and hides her secret but she is haunted by painful memories of the abusive cult and cannot adjust to normal life.  She finds it difficult to connect to the only people who can help her. The director slowly unravels the horrors of the traumas she went through in the cult.

Her increasing paranoia and anxiety combined with her brainwashing soon make it impossible for her to assimilate with their middle class lives.

Tense and wonderfully played out, this film was riveting. It is without doubt one of the hits of Sundance this year. It explores the human need to belong to something. Be it a group, a team, a religion, anything. The world of the cult is closely observed. It also explores the nature of abuse. Abused people are often in denial. They don’t want to believe it happened. They need to lie to themselves and everyone around them.

This evening I went to see Circumstance, written directed by ist time feature film maker Maryam Kesharv.  Its a beautiful film that lifts the veil on the repressions of Iranian culture. Two teenager friends Atefah and Shireen are eager to abandon the cultural taboos  of their restrictive lives in Iran. They live boldly, go to illegal underground parties, drink, wear sexy clothes and make out with guys. They dream about running away to Dubai and in this world where no one understands them are falling in love with each other.

Atefah’s brother returns home from a drug rehab. He has now become a strict muslim, renounces his former life as a musician and joins the morality police.  He becomes obsessed with Shireen and saving her from his sister Atefah’s influence.  Relationships between everyone become strained as he puts everyone under surveillance going to extreme lengths to protect his religious belief systems.  The once liberal haven of the family home becomes a place of danger as his obsession with Shireen grows.

This film is a great work of art from a very talented filmmaker. There was nothing I did not like. The cinematography is breathtaking, it is sensual and sumptuous. The actors all did a fabulous job and the story is narrated extremely well and handled with such care. I related well to this film. I have seen and experienced in Britain, muslim families where the young sometimes become more religious than their parents. It can upset the order of things in a way that has to be seen to be believed.  The film My son the fanatic also was about this subject.  It is interesting to ponder on what is it that is making such youth reject their host society and cultural upbringing and turn to extreme interpretations of religion.

Day 5

Took a break and went skiing in the morning for a few hours. Needed a breather from all the intense films I have been watching. Had an exhilarating time with my instructor Kelly who is just wonderful.

In the afternoon went to see a lovely Norwegian film Happy Happy, by first time director Anne Sewitsky. It’s a film about the resilience and malleability of adult relationships. Insanely optimistic easy-going, eager to please housewife Kaja lives in the middle of nowhere with her husband who wont have sex with her. Both him and their son are quite mean to her.  Hence she is actually very lonely. Along come some sophisticated, exciting new neighbours Elisabeth and Sigve and their adopted black son. Before long she is having a full on affair with Sigve. Soon all sorts of secrets come tumbling out liberating them all.

Happy Happy is set in the dead of winter. The locale is crucial in balancing the film between a sex comedy and drama. It’s a delightful film filled with dark humour, some uncomfortable moments and some hilarious.  Very well told story.

In the evening I saw a documentary called Hot Coffee. It’s about the famous American Mcdonalds coffee case, where a woman bought a coffee from Mcdonalds, spilled it on her lap and successfully sued the company.  She became the subject of much ridicule nationwide, actually internationally as I’m sure comedians and chat show hosts in Britain also joked about this case. This documentary explores how big businesses have spent millions in distorting the case to protect their interests. It unearths the disturbing truth that most of our beliefs about the american civil-justice system have been shaped or bought by corporate America. It is informative and entertaining. A definite must see eye opener.

Day 6

In the morning I saw watched a film called Gun Hill Road directed by Rashaa Ernesto Green.  It is about a macho guy who returns home after three years in prison to find things are very different from when he left. His wife is withdrawn and his son Michael has come out as Vanessa a transgender woman.  Unable to accept his child for who she is now, he clings to his masculine ideals with heartwrenching consequences.

This film is  at heart a family drama about a fathers inability to escape the vicious cycle of his life, his love for his child but his inability to accept his child’s life choices. The story is told with sensitivity and great performances all round.  Particular mention for newcomer Harmony Santana, who is just beautiful and unforgettable in the role of the transgender teenager.

In the afternoon I saw what I think has become probably my favourite film of Sundance. Incendies directed by Denis Villeneuve is Canada’s submission for the Oscars.  It’s a masterpiece.

A Canadian-Lebanese woman Nawal dies in Canada and leave two letters in her will for her twins Jeanne and Simon. They must fulfill their mother dying wish. They have to locate and deliver the letters to the father they thought was dead and the brother they never knew existed. Simon is irritated by the request but Jeanne travels to the Middle East to piece together her mother’s mysterious history. On a parallel quest set in the past Nawal searches for the son who was taken from her during the civil war between the Christians and the Palestinians. As the twins unravel their mother’s story, a crescendo of startling revelations unfolds with a shocking ending.

This film is filled with haunting images and unforgettable scenes. It’s an epic journey through brutality, deep-rooted hatred and enduring love. It stays with you long after you leave the cinema hall. I don’t want to say too much more but I urge everyone to watch this film.

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