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Foreign films a mixed bag this year at Sundance

By Don Marshall

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Jan. 29 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

"Bhutto" focuses on Pakistan's former prime minister, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2007.

Sundance Film Festival

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, the words "rebel" and "rebellion" continually pop up in the program guide and the introductory shorts that precede each film screening.

Consequently, filmgoers are apt to find the bulk of this year's films displaying an even stronger than usual touch of the off-beat, quirky, and even shocking. Not only do films such as "Howl," "Enter the Void," and "Lovers of Hate," push boundaries, but several others do as well.

In any case, this year's offerings continue to cover a wide range of subjects and styles, and this is as true for the foreign selections as it is for films from America. Among those films from other countries are three standouts which happen to be documentaries: "Sins of My Father," "Bhutto" and "Climate Refugees."

There may not be a more touching film at the festival than "Sins of My Father," which deals with drug lord Pablo Escobar from Colombia who, at one time, controlled 80 percent of the world's cocaine.

Arranging the assassination of two political figures who tried to stop him, Escobar himself was eventually hunted down and killed, and his wife and son escaped to Buenos Aires. The last half of this fascinating documentary focuses on that son who eventually feels he must come back to Colombia.

The reason? He seeks the sons of the two men his father had murdered and asks their forgiveness. The entire documentary is gripping, and I'm willing to wager that his meetings with those young men are something you may never forget.

Also very stirring is "Bhutto," about Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Pakistan's prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 1977. After earning degrees at Radcliffe and then Oxford, Benazir returned to Pakistan only to be arrested as a political dissident. She eventually became the first woman prime minister of a Muslim nation. Her story is compelling as we see her ousted by the military, then winning a second term as prime minister, being put into prison, and finally, returning once more to serve her troubled country. She was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2007.

Originating in the United States but focusing on countries worldwide, the eye-opening documentary "Climate Refugees" both shocks and informs, as it examines the millions and millions of people in danger of extinction, whether it be in Bangladesh, Africa, on the coral islands of the Polynesia known as Tuvalu, or in countless other areas of the earth. This important and jaw-dropping work leaves the viewer almost gasping.

For me, some of the World Cinema Documentaries I've been able to see thus far have proven disappointing. Although "Secrets of the Tribe" deals with the primitive and mind-boggling Yanomami tribes of the Amazon Basin, it actually spends far too much time with various anthropologists bad-mouthing one another when what we really want to learn more is these tribes continue to live as they've done for thousands of years.

"Red Chapel," a documentary depicting a relatively untalented group of three from Denmark (two of them actually Korean) who travel to North Korea to do a sort of cultural exchange, is quite interesting.

"His and Hers" consists of interviews with Irish women, from the very young to the very old, concerning the men in their lives. It's a fairly pleasant diversion, but, for me, their comments were far more mundane and routine than I had hoped for.

In the World Cinema Dramatic Film category, the comic "Four Lions," dealing with four Middle Eastern would-be jihadists, has so far proved to be the biggest disappointment — unless you can somehow find humor in them all, one by one, getting blown up.

Faring much better in this category is the intriguing though quite erotic "Vegetarian" from Korea, though it's bound to leave you still quite puzzled. Though beautiful to watch, it is still considerably inexplicable and unsettling.

For my money, the best of the bunch in the foreign dramatic section, so far, maybe "Boy" from New Zealand.

Thanks to two fine young actors, this story of a Maori boy and his younger brother is both entertaining and touching. Having lost their mother, followed by their father being sent to prison, these two boys (the oldest of whom is enamored with Michael Jackson) have learned to cope with little parental guidance and now find a bigger challenge when their father and two of his prison buddies come home. Clever — and full of memorable moments — "Boy" would probably have to get my top vote to date in the festival's foreign offerings — and "The Sins of My Father" may be the most moving foreign documentary.

e-mail: features@desnews.com. Don Marshall is the retired director of the BYU International Cinema Program.

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