The Hollywood screen legend, indie-film champion and political activist Robert Redford will be in London later this week to launch the inaugural Sundance London, a boutique version of his celebrated US film festival.
This four-day event takes place in the 02 Arena, a vast dome-like entertainment complex alongside the river Thames on the eastern side of the British capital. This cavernous venue is best known for hosting huge pop concerts, which is perhaps appropriate, as Sundance London has a music-heavy programme and offers a rare example of a film festival behaving more like a touring rock band, rolling out its greatest hits in different locations around the world.
Named after his character in the classic 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford established his Sundance Institute in 1981, a non-profit organisation designed to support independent filmmakers, writers and composers. Four years later, the institute took over the US Film Festival in the ski resort of Park City, Utah, rebranding it under the Sundance umbrella. The festival soon became a major launch pad for fresh new voices from the margins of American cinema, promoting early work by the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Lisa Cholodenko and many more.
Redford himself flew to Britain last month to help promote the spin-off London festival.
"Here's a slice of American life that we're bringing to you that maybe is not always found in the exports that usually come here from Hollywood," the 75-year-old Hollywood veteran told Sky News. "It's showing you a side of American cinema that's more independent, more offbeat, and it is also a chance to bring new artists here, new voices that are in an edgier part of our culture."
Critics of Sundance might dispute this description, with some claiming that the US festival has become too corporate and comfortable, losing its creative edge to younger contenders such as Robert De Niro's Tribeca film festival in New York City and South by Southwest in Texas. After all, Redford's empire now includes a cable-TV channel and a newly launched film production arm. For dissenters, the Sundance brand has become formulaic and tired, denoting an overly earnest brand of no-frills drama with a heavy-handed liberal message.
But Sundance London appears to be trying to steal back some of its former youth-culture buzz with its emphasis on music documentaries, including film portraits of the punk-funk pioneers LCD Sound System and the indie-rockers Placebo. The O2 Arena programme also incorporates live concerts by Placebo, the cult rapper Tricky and the musical siblings Rufus and Martha Wainwright, who are promoting a documentary about their late mother, the singer Kate McGarrigle. According to the festival director John Cooper, the focus of Sundance London will be "not just film but putting film and music together to create a dialogue and create community".
One of the most eagerly anticipated European premieres at the festival is Julie Delpy's 2 Days in New York, a sequel to the French-born actor turned writer-director's 2007 romcom 2 Days in Paris. Delpy reprises her role as a neurotic Parisian anxiously awaiting an awkward visit from her family. Co-starring Chris Rock, the film has earned comparisons to vintage Woody Allen, although Delpy herself prefers a darker and more dysfunctional school of comic farce.
"I like Martin Scorsese comedies better than Woody Allen comedies," Delpy says, "because I like psychotic, neurotic characters. They make me laugh more. I love that cinema, I love bad people to be the centre of the movie - they are more interesting to me. I was raised watching movies from the 1960s and 1970s, where the hero was the bad guy - from the Nouvelle Vague to Bonnie and Clyde, Scorsese and Coppola and all that."
Other acclaimed dramatic features making their international debuts at Sundance London include Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts, a bittersweet US campus romance, and Terence Nance's An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, a love story that cleverly incorporates animated fragments into its experimental narrative. And fresh from winning the main screenwriting prize at the US festival in January, Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed is a surreal comedy about a young woman drawn to an eccentric loner who claims he has mastered time travel.
In recent years, Sundance has become an increasingly important showcase for hard-hitting documentaries on social and political themes - films like Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, Lucy Walker's Waste Land and Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight. Among the non-fiction offerings in London later this week will be Jarecki's latest polemical documentary The House I Live In, which examines America's "War on Drugs", and Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles, about a wealthy couple whose runaway consumerism backfires badly during the credit crunch. Both won prizes at the US Sundance festival in January.
Whether Sundance London will be a one-off experiment or blossom into a long-term global expansion of the brand remains to be seen. But whatever message he takes home from his London visit, Redford's crucial role in the rise of independent American cinema is already part of the history books.
• Sundance London festival runs from April 26 to 29. For more information, visit www.sundance-london.com
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