Park City • America’s most prestigious film festival opened with a global feel Thursday night — with a Nebraska-born director premiering a movie she shot in Jordan, an American star featured in a Chilean movie, and a British-made documentary about a Mexican-American border mystery.
"It just feels like I’m coming home every time I come here," said writer-director Cherien Dabis, as she introduced her comedy-drama "May in the Summer" as the first U.S. film in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford told the Eccles Theatre audience that Dabis holds a special place in independent film, as she was a fellow at Sundance’s first filmmakers’ lab in Jordan. She was working on her first feature, "Amreeka," a cross-cultural comedy that debuted at Sundance in 2009.
"I’m one of those filmmakers who can honestly say I would not have a career without the Sundance Institute," Dabis said.
Festival director John Cooper praised Dabis for sheer courage. "She has taken perhaps the most frightening step for a director — she has stepped in front of the camera," Cooper said.
In "May in the Summer," Dabis stars as May, one of three sisters — all products of an American father (Bill Pullman) and a Jordanian mother (Hiam Abbass). The sisters return to Jordan for May’s impending wedding to a fellow academic (Alexander Siddig), but she finds that even in the desert it’s possible to get cold feet.
Dabis, whose father is Palestinian and mother is Jordanian, filmed part of "May in the Summer" in her mom’s apartment. "I’m sorry I went through your drawers on camera," Dabis said to her mother, who was in the audience.
Dabis recounted that when "Amreeka" was accepted into Sundance, she called her mother with the news. "She said, ‘My God, Cherien, that is so exciting. But what is Sunny-Dance?’ " Dabis said, adding triumphantly, "Mom, this is Sundance!"
Other movies debuting at Sundance on Thursday night were: "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" a British documentary about an unidentified migrant’s body found in the Arizona desert; "Crystal Fairy," a drama by Chilean director Sebastian Silva starring the American actor Michael Cera; and the musical documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom," about the lives of back-up singers.
The 2013 Sundance Film Festival continues Friday with a full slate of screenings in Park City, as well as shows at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort. The festival runs through Jan. 27.
Earlier, at the festival’s opening press conference, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam proclaimed that the 2013 festival will screen movies from 32 countries. Yet much of the morning discussion revolved around Sundance’s singular place in Utah.
In the beginning years, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, observers questioned the decision to hold the film festival in Utah, founder Robert Redford told the standing-room-only crowd at the Egyptian Theatre. Redford said he’d reply, "Why not?" and then explain that he wanted to insulate the independent film festival from the commercial demands of Los Angeles and New York City.
The only way to have diverse, distinct and individual voices was to have a festival away from the mainstream media markets, he said.
Redford acknowledged that over the years that same sense of diversity has become commercially viable, alluding to past Sundance successes, such as "Little Miss Sunshine," "Reservoir Dogs" and last year’s darling, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which earlier this month received four Oscar nominations.
The panel with Redford, Putnam and Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper — moderated by Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean P. Means — devoted much of its 45 minutes to a Q-and-A session. One reporter asked the panel’s response to a Salt Lake City-based conservative policy group, the Sutherland Institute, which on Jan. 11 issued its annual statement terming the film festival an affront to Utah values.
Redford was unabashed in his criticism. "Sometimes, the narrowest mind barks the loudest," he said. "We need to ignore them."
The festival infuses some $80 million annually to the Utah economy, and Redford defended that impact by saying, "We bring something to the table." Finally, alluding to the filmmakers’ and filmgoers’ right to assemble and engage in free speech, Redford added that the Sutherland Institute "should read the Constitution."
Sexuality and music are two trends that seem prominent among films to be screened on this year’s program, Cooper said.
Some questions focused on the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre and how audiences might respond differently to movies about guns and gun violence in the wake of the tragedy — even though the films on this year’s slate were chosen before the Connecticut mass shooting.
The national dialogue on gun control was "not only appropriate, but overdue," Redford said. He told a story about one of the first festivals and how the shooting of President Ronald Reagan influenced festival organizers to discuss gun control and violence.
Recently, while driving around Los Angeles, Redford saw two movie billboards in the span of a few blocks that prominently displayed guns. "Does my industry think that guns will help sell tickets?" he said. "It’s worth asking that question."
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