Entertainment & Arts

'Insanity' of Sundance set to begin

Image caption Paul Giamatti comedy Win Win is showing at this year's festival

Big names from the world of cinema are en route to this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of the world's leading showcases of independent film.

More than 100 full-length features are being screened at the 11-day festival, featuring such stars as Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Spacey, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore and Sigourney Weaver.

Sundance, which takes place in the relatively small winter ski resort of Park City in Utah, has its own unique charms for stars accustomed to the international film festival circuit.

Paul Giamatti, who'll be starring in high-school wrestling drama Win Win, says what sets the festival apart is "the insanity of it - the fact that everybody is crammed into a little street in the middle of Utah."

With some 20 British films in the line-up, there's a strong UK presence at the festival this year.

Ewan McGregor, Hugh Dancy, Alex Kingston and Freddie Highmore are among the British actors in Sundance films.

British directors are making an impact too. Kevin Macdonald, who directed The Last King of Scotland, has masterminded Life in a Day, one of the most ambitious and eagerly awaited Sundance films.

It's a global cinematic project, supported by YouTube and built from user-generated content drawn from 80,000 people.

All the images seen in the film were shot on a single day - 24 July 2010.

Magical kingdom

Another British director, James Marsh, has also been the subject of pre-festival talk with his documentary, Project Nim.

Marsh, who won an Oscar in 2009 for his film Man On Wire, explores an experiment which aimed to prove that a chimpanzee - if raised like a human baby - could communicate through sign language.

There's also interest in Becoming Chaz, co-produced by British film-maker Fenton Bailey.

The documentary chronicles Cher's daughter Chastity and her transition to becoming a man through gender reassignment.

Sundance is guided by director and actor Robert Redford, one of the festival's founding fathers.

To many independent film-makers, he has created a magical kingdom in the snowy mountains of Utah.

"It's one of the only places left where you can have this huge community of people come and just celebrate smaller films," says Alex Stapleton, who's coming to Sundance with her documentary on maverick film-maker Robert Corman.

"Films that otherwise may not even be seen anywhere else."

Something different

Another Sundance supporter is Hollywood film-maker Rob Minkoff, He'll be at the festival with Flypaper, an independent film starring Patrick Dempsey and Ashley Judd.

For Minkoff, who made his name largely by directing mainstream movies, it is an opportunity to do something fresh.

"When you work in the business, particularly if you're doing studio movies, you can kind of get typecast or pigeon-holed to do things people expect from you," he says.

Image caption Project Nim looks at whether a chimpanzee can communicate through sign language

"Doing this movie was an opportunity for me to do something I liked, but not necessarily something people would expect or want to pay me for."

John Cooper, the festival's programming director, believes Sundance is a vital place.

"I love the amount of lives that we get to affect," he says. "It's a big career move for a film-maker to get into Sundance.

"I'm excited about our history of seeing a film-maker come with a short five or 10 years ago, and then come back with a feature, sometimes a small feature and then a bigger feature."

But the festival's cheerleaders cannot ignore the sobering underlying realities. These are still extremely tough times for independent cinema.

The recession has hit the industry hard, there is still no solid business model independent film-makers can embrace and the vast majority of films screened at Sundance will leave the festival without a distribution deal.

Yet Sundance nearly always yields winners. It's helped to launch the careers of some of the biggest names in cinema, from directors like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino to actresses like Britain's Carey Mulligan.

Several films that are contenders in the current awards season - The Kids are All Right, Blue Valentine and British documentary Restrepo - were all screened at last year's Sundance.

So there is always reason for hope for Sundance attendees that their work will be discovered in Park City and lead to bigger success in the outside world.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from 20 to 30 January.

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