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The Egyptian Theater is seen on Main Street during the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The Egyptian Theater is seen on Main Street during the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Sundance trailblazer: festival preview from Park City

The Sundance Film Festival 2011 features an eclectic line-up, including a documentary whose star is a chimpanzee named Nim.

David D'Arcy gives a run-down of the movie line-up at Park City

Lest anyone accuse the Sundance Film Festival of capitulating to screen stardom, consider the star of one of its opening-night films. Nim, the protagonist of Project Nim, a documentary, is a chimpanzee. And he's been dead for 10 years. But in the 1970s, Nim - also known by his full name, Nim Chimpsky - was at the centre of a plan to teach chimps to communicate using sign language. The goal was to see how "human" an animal's behaviour could be. Project Nim is the latest by James Marsh, the British director of the stylish, Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire (2008).

Sundance, which runs from today until January 30, has five opening films this week, one for each of its competitions - US and world narrative features, US and world documentary features, and shorts. As its range indicates, the festival has grown in recent years to incorporate international competitions. An expanded New Frontiers section is devoted to experimental films and contemporary art. Next is for films with budgets under US$500,000 (Dh1.8m). The least expensive feature in that field, Lord Byron, was completed for $900 - about the cost of a room and dinner for four during the festival in its mountain-resort home, Park City.

Even at those prices, Sundance remains an alternative to Hollywood, not just for aspiring independent filmmakers, but for Hollywood itself, as it was for Robert Redford when he founded the Sundance Institute in 1981.

Hollywood will rub shoulders with ill-clothed impoverished independents in Park City again this year, where audiences will see lower-budget films in which actors and directors take risks that won't land them in the multiplexes.

Hollywood stars are in the cast of My Idiot Brother, an ensemble comedy directed by Jesse Peretz (whose sister co-wrote the script), and starring Paul Rudd (I Love You, Man) as an incurable optimist, with Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer as sisters vying to supply him with the proper reality check.

Elizabeth Banks is also alongside Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man) in the Sundance premiere of The Details, a black comedy about a quarrelling couple who can't agree on how to deal with a pack of racoons that have invaded their garden. Word is that The Details is not for the squeamish.

In Cedar Rapids, directed by the Sundance veteran Miguel Arteta, Ed Helms (The Hangover) plays an innocent small-town insurance agent who runs head-on into temptation at a convention in the small city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Once again, Sundance is a forum for actors who are trying their hand at directing films. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) makes her directorial debut with Higher Ground, in which she also takes the role of a woman who feels trapped in her community. Farmiga says the film was inspired in part by Debra Granik's rural noir saga from Sundance 2010, Winter's Bone, a rare hit to emerge from Sundance last year. You can expect Higher Ground to share its gritty look. Farmiga's cinematographer was Michael McDonough, who also shot Winter's Bone.

Sundance 2011 also presents the directorial debut of Michael Rappaport, the teenage star of Zebrahead at Sundance 1992. Rappaport's film is a documentary about the hip-hop band, A Tribe Called Quest.

Actors behind the camera don't get automatic entry to Sundance, the festival director John Cooper emphasises, noting that there are fewer this year than in the past. "Nobody talks about the risk of becoming a director when you're an actor," he says. "You can make a bad movie as an actor, and nobody blames you. But to put your stake in the ground as a creative soul - that's risking something.

"Generally, we turn down a few films by actors each year," he adds, though without mentioning names. "They come under the same scrutiny as everything else."

That scrutiny extends to films from throughout the English-speaking world. Among the openers is The Guard, which pairs Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle as a policeman and an FBI agent chasing drug smugglers in Ireland. The cop-buddy twist is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin McDonagh whose Sundance 2008 opener In Bruges paired Gleeson and Colin Farrell as hit-men on the lam.

Indeed, Sundance is always something of a family reunion. Even filmmakers who explore the Middle East and the Islamic world return as veterans to the festival. Leonard Retel Helmrich will be there with Position Among the Stars, which won the top prize at the IDFA documentary festival in Amsterdam for its third instalment on an Indonesian family's move from the countryside to the city. The second part of his trilogy won Sundance's World Documentary prize in 2004.

One newcomer this year is the Iranian-American Maryam Keshavarz. Her debut feature, Circumstance, in the US narrative feature competition, surveys the political landscape in Iran today from the perspective of rebellious adolescents.

The Green Wave is another look inside Iran by one of its expatriates, Ali Samadi Ahadi (a resident of Germany), who revisits the mass demonstrations of the summer of 2009 and their post-election suppression in an epic mix of street videos, interviews and animation. The Green Wave also won honours at IDFA.

For grand epic scale and artistic ambition, there is The Mill and the Cross by the Polish director Lech Majewski, a film based on The Way to Calvary, a 1564 painting by the Belgian master Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The Dutch actor Rutger Hauer plays Brueghel, who narrates his story in English. Michael York plays Brueghel's patron and collector. Majewski's strategy (and hope) is that the painter's vision will catch on with the general audience. It's a lot of art for the American heartland.

"I like the fact that Rutger Hauer is in that film, which is the most 'high-art' film of the festival, but he's also in Hobo with a Shotgun, which you might call the most 'gutter trash' film of the festival," says Sundance's programme director, Trevor Groth.

Hauer's versatility aside, another aspirant on the ambition scale is Michael Tully, 36, who directed, scripted, edited, acted, composed music (and sang), and even played tennis on-screen in his second feature, Septien, the tale of a man who returns to his family's farm after an 18-year absence. The idea for the film, which cost some $50,000 to make, came from a brainstorming session at Sundance last year, says Tully, who thinks Septien ended up in Sundance's Midnight section because programmers weren't sure if it was horror, comedy, or gothic.

There is always a tear-jerker that stands out at Sundance. Two years ago it was Precious, a young woman's journey from abuse and rejection to literacy, directed by Lee Daniels. Leading the pack this year is a documentary, Crime After Crime, in which a young woman is wrongly imprisoned for the killing of an abusive boyfriend. While Deborah Peagler sits in jail for years, lawyers learn that prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have changed the case. Even when that evidence surfaces, the same prosecutors fight to keep her in jail. She is finally freed and her ordeal is terminated by California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (the film's only box-office name). "A lawyer cries," said John Cooper, who admitted that he also wept. "Once a lawyer cries, I'm done."

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