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Sundance Festival opens amid national, local criticism over film

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17 2013 3:45 p.m. MST

From left, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Bill Pullman, Cherien Dabis, Nadine Malouf and Ritu Singh Pande, from the film From left, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Bill Pullman, Cherien Dabis, Nadine Malouf and Ritu Singh Pande, from the film "May in the Summer," greet the media during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

PARK CITY — Kicking off the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, festival director John Cooper said the advancement of technology has coincided with an increase in both the quality and quantity of independent film.

For individuals who aspire to be filmmakers today, the only limitation, Cooper said, is their own imagination.

"It's at everyone's fingertips," he said. "Anyone can be a filmmaker now."

But this year's festival, like those of recent years, involves much more than filmmaking. The 10-day event in Park City is host to short, documentary and feature films, as well as live musical performances and interactive multimedia art installations.

"I just want to get this thing started," Cooper said. "I feel like I'm sitting on a powder keg of talent that needs to explode."

During the festival's opening-day press conference at the Egyptian Theater, Sundance officials were also asked about the country's current explosive political climate.

Nadine Malouf, from the film Nadine Malouf, from the film "May in the Summer," greets the media during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

The festival opens during a time of local and national criticism of the content of film and media. Since the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last month, several groups — including the National Rifle Association — have pointed fingers at the pervasive violence in video games, television and film as contributing to the high level of gun crime in the United States.

Then last week, the Sutherland Institute, a conservative organization based in Salt Lake City, issued a statement calling on Utah's leaders to sever its ties with and support of the Sundance Film Festival.

The organization said Sundance regularly brings films to Utah that promote obscene and pornographic content, and that taxpayers should not have to endorse films that are contrary to their values.

When asked about the Connecticut school shooting and criticisms levied against film and media, Sundance founder and president Robert Redford remarked that in the same year the festival began in Park City, there was an assassination attempt on the life of then-President Ronald Reagan.

From left, Ritu Singh Pande, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf and Cherien Dabis, from the film From left, Ritu Singh Pande, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf and Cherien Dabis, from the film "May in the Summer," greet the media during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

Now, more than 30 years later, Redford said it's good that a national conversation on gun control is taking place.

"I think it's absolutely appropriate, not only appropriate but overdue, to have a dialogue," he said.

Redford also spoke about a recent experience he had while driving in Los Angeles, when he noticed two billboard advertisements for movies that prominently featured firearms. He suggested there may be a conversation that filmmakers and studio executives should have in light of recent tragedies.

"Does my industry think that guns will help sell tickets? It seems like a question worth asking my own industry," he said.

Responding to the Sutherland Institute statement, Redford said the festival has routinely faced critics since it started in 1981.

Cast members from the film Cast members from the film "May in the Summer" greet each other during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

"Sometimes the narrowest mind barks the loudest, and we've, over time, just come to ignore it," he said.

Redford said that it's up to the audience to choose what films to see. He also noted that the 10-day festival brings in roughly $80 million to the local economy each year.

Diversity of subject in film has always been part of Sundance's DNA, Redford said. The continued success and growth of the festival, he said, was a response to audiences' reactions to the films featured during the event.

"This is about diversity," Redford said. "This is about something that hasn't been done, and the audience will choose. The nice thing is that we're still here, and diversity has proven to be commercial."

Diversity was also demonstrated by the festival's opening-day film, "May in the Summer," which had its world premiere Thursday night at the Eccles Theater. The movie was filmed in Jordan and features a mostly Arab-American cast.

Alia Shawkat, from the film Alia Shawkat, from the film "May in the Summer," greets the media during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

"We just finished the film so it is truly the first audience," said Cherien Dabis, writer, director and star of the film. "I feel like I just stepped off the set, and I can't believe I am here."

Dabis said the movie is based on her own life, particularly the summers she spent in Jordan with her mother and sisters when she was young. The film, which she described as a journey of self-discovery, follows a woman named May who travels to Jordan to plan her wedding, only to find herself surrounded in familial drama.

Dabis said she was completely shocked at the honor of being chosen as the festival's first-day film.

"(John) Cooper told me first that we were in the U.S. dramatic competition and then said, 'And you're day one,'" she said. "I just had to have him explain to me what that meant because I couldn't believe it."

Actor Bill Pullman, who co-stars in "May in the Summer," said he has been to Sundance five or six times but never as part of a first-day film.

From left, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat and Nadine Malouf, from the film From left, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat and Nadine Malouf, from the film "May in the Summer," greet the media during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

"This was really an exotic adventure making this movie in Jordan," he said. "I'm really glad to be a part of this group."

Attending the films at Sundance can, at times, be a daunting task for members of the general public, but one feature of the festival open to any and all guests is the multimedia art installations at New Frontier, which this year is being hosted at The Yard.

Shari Frilot, a senior programmer for the festival and curator of the New Frontier, said this year's exhibit features seven artists whose work is designed to wrap around, relax and involve the viewer.

The entrance to the venue has been turned into an art installation,  Frilot said, with a lounge and heat lamps set up outside for guests to watch a 16-minute film every night beginning at dusk.

"You get that immersive feeling as soon as you walk up to the venue," she said. "Once you walk into the venue, you'll encounter environment after environment with immersive media that will surround you."

Hiam Abbass and Cherien Dabis, from the film Hiam Abbass and Cherien Dabis, from the film "May in the Summer," greet the media during the red carpet event prior to the film's premiere at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

New Frontier will be hosting several free panel discussions during the festival, including one Saturday with Ed Ulbrich, the CEO of Digitial Domain, the company behind the hologram of late rapper Tupac Shakur that performed at last year's Coachella music festival. The artists behind this year's exhibits will also be participating in a gallery opening from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday.

New Frontier runs every day of the festival between noon and 8 p.m.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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