x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Middle East has a strong presence at Sundance 2014

The Sundance Film Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this week with a wide variety of features centered on the Middle East - including a vampire Western from Iran.

A scene from Sepideh, Reaching for the stars. Paul Wilson / Radiator Films
A scene from Sepideh, Reaching for the stars. Paul Wilson / Radiator Films

The might of social media and realism juxtaposed with the dreamlike wonder of surrealism provide a heady concoction for the Arab-themed films selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

The screen legend Robert Redford’s independent film festival – the largest of its kind in the world – prides itself on challenging the status quo, both by pushing the boundaries in storytelling and by tackling controversial subjects head on. This anniversary edition is no different.

Running in the festival’s world cinema documentary competition, the Return to Homs, the feature debut by the Syrian journalist cum activist Talal Derki, tracks two friends – one a football player turned revolutionary, the other a media activist – as they navigate the horrific shelling of their beloved city. Derki pulls no punches, as he presents a deadly and unpredictable situation close up without filters or effects. The film’s no-holds-barred civil war reportage is both topical and harrowing, with little doubt whose side the filmmaker is on.

The Danish filmmaker Berit Madsen’s feature debut, Sepideh, also running in the festival’s world cinema documentary competition, presents a struggle in Iran of a very different kind. The title character is a teenage girl who dreams of becoming an astronomer but is thwarted by her traditional family and her failure to secure a university scholarship. The night sky rarely felt so bright.

If struggle and change feature strongly at Sundance, so does a healthy dose of the bizarre. Several Iranian filmmakers – two based in the US, one in Paris – boast plenty of surrealist flourishes in their work.

In the edgy Next strand of the festival’s programme, the Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone, mashes elements of the Iranian New Wave with Spaghetti Western and David Lynch surrealism. Amirpour’s film – the first vampire Western in Iranian cinema – is set within the stylised locale of Bad City, where lowlifes run amok. The Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood, clearly impressed by Amirpour’s work, is one of the film’s executive producers.

Another Iranian-American, Desiree Akhavan, writes, directs and stars in her own feature debut also screening within Next. Appropriate Behaviour is a risqué drama telling of sexual rebellion, in which Shirin (Akhavan) refuses to bow to familial and societal expectations. Expect to see this turning heads and ruffling feathers when it premieres at the weekend.

Less controversial, but just as kooky, is The Voices, from the Paris-based Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi. She follows up her 2011 live-action feature Chicken with Plums with an altogether more out-of-the-box surrealist romp, in which the Hollywood heart-throb Ryan Reynolds plays a bachelor whose pet animals start talking to him after he falls for a female colleague. Given the buzz surrounding her debut feature Persepolis, Satrapi’s Sundance debut should be equally as enticing and wild.

Rather fittingly rounding out the key Arab-themed features at this year’s festival is the documentary We Are the Giant, from the former war correspondent Greg Barker (of Ghosts of Rwanda fame).

An examination of activists for change, following the Arab Spring, the film tracks several real-life characters and what, how and why they do what they do. One goes and fights Qaddafi’s forces in Benghazi. Two others support peaceful change despite the violence erupting in Syria, while two more become vocal opposition figures in Bahrain.

Although not on the front line in the way Return to Homs is, We Are the Giant is designed to examine characters in their own setting, as well as remind audiences of the role social media plays in forcing change (as it did in Egypt, with last year’s The Square).

Redford, the Sundance Kid himself, is also back on the front line, albeit working the awards season circuit in Los Angeles, while in cinemas he has been battling the elements in J C Chandor’s Oscar hopeful All is Lost – Redford’s first role within a Sundance alumnus’s work. Given the 77-year-old’s drive, he’ll no doubt be in Utah for his own opening night, unflustered and ready to go with this year’s festival. Sundance always throws up surprises – but Redford is a given.

• The Sundance Film Festival runs from today until January 26. Visit www.sundance.org/festival for more information.

• To view the new Sundance channel in the UAE, go to OSN channel 35

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artslife@thenational.ae