The World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival featured some genuinely exciting and original films, as well as many films that check the selection’s regular boxes.
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In the eight years I’ve been covering the Sundance Film Festival, the World Cinema Dramatic Competition has been the most consistently under-rated and under-covered section of the festival, despite regularly featuring great titles. Reserved more for early career filmmakers than industry heavyweights, the competition tends to anoint exciting new talent each year.
Whether those films actually get seen by press or the public, at the festival or afterward, is another story altogether.
In 2014, the lineup featured the Ben-Whishaw-starrer Lilting, Eskil Vogt’s stunning debut, Blind, and Sophie Hyde’s debut, 52 Tuesdays. In the years since, the program has featured two films that we went on to write books about — Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country — and a whole slew of other wonderful films. Some of these disappear entirely from North America, like Rebecca Daly’s Mammal or Anne Sewitsky’s Homesick — neither of which you can even import on DVD. Others get modest limited cinema runs or VOD releases, like Tali Shalom-Ezer’s Princess or May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts. The rare film breaks through to get a Criterion release (The Lure) or Oscar-shortlisted (The Guilty). And yet it’s the program where I tend to make the best discoveries. This year’s festival featured a particularly weak across-the-board selection, but the World Cinema Dramatic Competition was still the strongest program. It even featured the festival’s best film, the entirely original The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet.
How Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition compares to other international festivals
Unlike most international film festivals, Sundance separates its competitions into American and World Cinema competitions. The U.S. competitions are considered the centrepiece of Sundance while the World Cinema selections are regularly sidelined. That’s not just a choice by the largely American press corps but by the festival itself, which always programmes the single press screenings for World Dramatic titles simultaneously so that press have to work for it if they want to see the entire selection. The festival also requires that its competition titles are world premieres, which can make it difficult to premiere at other festivals more focused on world cinema.
Choosing to screen your film at Sundance means subjecting your film to a system that’s already stacked against it. For the most part, this means Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition has become a program for films that might struggle to get into other festivals. If you’re a first-time director, working with unknown actors, there’s stiff competition for slots at festivals like Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, and Venice.
There’s also very little space to ‘move up’ in the ranks at Sundance. By contrast, most other international festivals have programmes for unknowns which receive less press attention, but allow you to develop a relationship with the festival’s programmers. Once you get a foothold there, you can move up to the more prestigious sections that are better covered, whether your film is in English or not. At Cannes, you can start in one of the sidebars, like Un Certain Regard; at TIFF, you can start in Discovery, and move up to Special Presentations as you become a better-known director.
If you have a successful World Dramatic run at Sundance, when you return with another film, you’re likely to be stuck in the section unless the film is in English; the festival’s starry Premieres section is almost entirely comprised of English-language films. After achieving acclaim at TIFF, Amanda Kernell’s first feature, Sami Blood, screened in Sundance’s only section for films from other festivals, Spotlight. When she made her second film, Charter, it was ironically relegated to a section with even fewer eyes on it, the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, since these films don’t have the approval stamp of other festival success. Ana Katz, who directed this year’s best film of the festival, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, had previously screened a film in World Dramatic in 2016 (My Friend From the Park). After screening two films in the World Dramatic competition (Happy, Happy and Homesick), Anne Sewitsky was only promoted to Premieres for Sonja: The White Swan, because much of the film was in English and set in the US.
If Sundance is so uninterested in cultivating long-term relationships with international filmmakers, and does the bare minimum to help the films get seen during the festival, why screen them at all? It almost seems like the World Dramatic Competition regularly features excellent films almost in spite of itself. The batting average isn’t great, with at least a few stinkers each year, and a few OK-but-not-great films. But there are usually at least a couple of good films, and often two or more great films that often emerge as the best of the festival overall.
Blueprints for success in the World Dramatic Competition
The one blueprint for a film’s success that I have observed with this section, is if the film is in English, a crowd-pleaser, and leagues ahead of the other films in competition. That is, if it’s good enough to have been accepted by other festivals. Francis Lee’s first feature, God’s Own Country, for example, became a breakout hit after receiving a few rave reviews at Sundance (including from me). From the plot description and few press stills available, it appeared to be a punishing social realist drama rather than a sweet romance about discovering intimacy; I was pleasantly surprised, as were other critics. The only other World Dramatic film even on the same level as God’s Own Country that year was the great Georgian film My Happy Family, but it struggled to find its audience at Sundance because it wasn’t in English..
I could see God’s Own Country being a film that would be lost in the shuffle were it to screen in Un Certain Regard at Cannes or Discovery at TIFF, where so many great auteurs get their start. At Sundance, though, it was a clear standout, and word of mouth helped it go from a minor hit at Sundance to a major hit on the LGBTQ+ festival circuit, and a worldwide sensation by December. It would never have scored the opening night slot at the Edinburgh Film Festival without its earlier Sundance success. The Sundance premiere ended up setting the film up for a year’s worth of awards buzz, which paid dividends at the British Independent Film Awards, where the film picked up several major awards, and even more nominations. But as soon as Lee had starry enough actors to barter for a slot in a bigger festival for his next film, he took on the Cannes label for Ammonite, rather than returning to Sundance for a Premiere as an American filmmaker originally anointed by Sundance, like Richard Linklater, might do.
Another case study for success is Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. At the time, Hogg was a relative unknown among cinephiles, despite having already made three excellent features. The film proved one of the best of the year, and one of the best of the 2010s, so could have easily earned a place at a festival like Berlin or Toronto. But if it were relegated to a sidebar in one of those festivals, it might struggle to get seen. As the standout of the year in World Dramatic in 2019, it generated enormous buzz and picked up awards, putting the film and Hogg on cinephiles’ radar worldwide. But by being almost too good for the Sundance competition and in English, it received serious attention. Meanwhile, Queen of Hearts, an excellent Danish film that also screened in competition that year, was one of the best of the year if not the decade, yet it laboured in obscurity.
A program with fewer well-worn cliches than other Sundance sections
Compared to the rest of the Sundance selection, the World Dramatic Competition’s films tend to adhere less closely to well-worn Sundance formulas. At this point, most film fans could probably make a bingo card of regular cliches to be found in Sundance selections. While there are always a few duds in the World Dramatic Competition, it’s usually stronger than its sister competition, the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and often features more original films. Or, at least it may seem that way on the surface. But the closer you look at the programming through the years, the more you see it trends toward European cinema and cinema from the Americas, with the occasional Asian film thrown in; every couple of years, an African film sneaks in, too.
Most of the program’s films can be slotted into familiar boxes that the program returns to again and again over the years, even if there is variety and inventiveness throughout that year’s program. Even if Sundance is the best, or only, potential option for your film, you still have to fit into very regimented ideas about storytelling, meaning more original works might be getting rejected.
They love a good one-location thriller: from the Turkish Ivy (2015), in which crew members of a cargo ship get stuck on board for months, to the Danish emergency call centre thriller The Guilty (2018), to the game-show setting of Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (2020), and this year, Prime Time (2021), a sort of Polish Money Monster with less tension. They also love a film about an unconventional parent — the newly transitioned transgender male parent of 52 Tuesdays (2014), the incest-adjacent dramas Mammal (2016) and Queen of Hearts (2019), the maid who is like a mother in The Second Mother (2015), or this year’s mother-daughter grifters of El Planeta (2021). This program also loves a good sexual awakening or uncomfortable experience with sexualisation, from The Summer of Sangailé (2015), to Princess (2016), to The Sharks (2019), to last year’s Cuties (2020).
2021’s selection still filled familiar slots in World Cinema Dramatic
Most of this year’s program similarly slots into certain Sundance World Cinema Dramatic archetypes, too. The program’s buzziest title, Pleasure, about a woman making her way through the exploitative adult film industry, was originally slated for a Cannes 2020 premiere. But it fits right in with Sundance’s interest in sexually provocative films by female directors. Pleasure, fortunately, is more thoughtful and nuanced than 2018’s Holiday (Isabella Eklöf), which was about a sex worker in an abusive relationship who might herself be manipulative. It also chimes with 2017’s Berlin Syndrome by Cate Shortland (Black Widow), in which a date goes so wrong that a woman ends up held hostage in the man’s apartment, and Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (2016), a stylized musical about a pair of mermaids who take men as their prey.
Similarly, the multiple-award-winning Hive, which our Executive Editor Orla Smith was only lukewarm on, fits neatly into the festival’s desire to have a film about a woman fighting against (or brought down by) the patriarchy, usually also directed by women. In the past, many of these selections have been my festival favourites. In 2016, it was the tense Serbian drama A Good Wife, about a woman contemplating how to deal with the discovery of her husband’s war crimes, when her whole life revolves around caring for him and their children. Sand Storm (now on Netflix), one of the best films of 2016, also screened at the festival, and was about how patriarchal oppression is often enforced by women. In 2017, it was the excellent My Happy Family (now on Netflix), about a put-upon middle-aged house wife who decides to up and leave her family so she can take care of herself. And in 2019, Judy stood up to her abusive husband punch in Mirrah Foulkes’s well-intentioned Judy and Punch.
Two of my least favourite genres are the disability drama, which typically play into the worst cliches of disability stories, and the European family-based psychological thriller, which tend to be all style and little substance. In 2016, Between Sea and Land suggested that being a wheelchair user was worse than being dead, while 2019’s Dirty God was a surprisingly thoughtful and sensitive story of an acid burn victim.
This year’s disability drama, Ajiptal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains, set in the mountains of rural India, at least had the distinction of not explicitly claiming it’s better to be dead than disabled, though you’re left wondering how much better off the family would be if the wheelchair-using boy were dead. While it featured an entirely realistic cast of characters, the film itself seems to align with their problematic views on disability. The German film Human Factors served as this year’s psychological family drama-thriller, which like Koko-di Koko-da (2019), begins with a promising premise before fizzling out, though it does feature an impressive leading performance by Mark Waschke.
Fire in the Mountains is the story of a mother struggling against her abusive husband and unsupportive family, while trying to care for her son who recently lost the ability to walk, despite the doctors being unable to find a physiological reason for it. She doesn’t take things lying down though, crafting a plan to ensure her son gets back to school, even if it’s at the expense of her daughter’s future and her own bodily autonomy. The chauvinistic attitudes held toward women in the village and the pervasive corruption meant this paired well with one of the festival’s highlights, Writing with Fire (World Documentary Competition), which illuminated other aspects of women’s struggles against the patriarchy in India. Unfortunately, Fire in the Mountains tends to associate disability with cruelty, since the two disabled characters we meet are the corrupt, rapey town official, and our protagonist’s son, who is often shot sitting on his wheelchair as if it’s a throne, as if being disabled is an excuse to be pampered at other people’s expense. The landscape of the area is gorgeous, and this is a fascinating look at another culture, but one that falls into problematic cliches of so many other (often American) disability narratives.
This year, in a bid to keep the festival as American as possible, two films in the competition were set at least partly in the US — Pleasure and the disappointing One for the Road — and one film was directed by an American who also holds a Maltese passport. The latter film, Luzzu, proved one of the highlights of the festival. It also pairs nicely with the U.S. Dramatic Competition winner, CODA, as both films tackle the changing fishing industries in their respective countries.
How truly original films sneak into the World Cinema Dramatic Competition
When a truly original film sneaks its way into the competition, I always wonder whether it can still somehow be slotted into boxes the programmers like to tick. Eskil Vogt’s formally inventive Blind, for example, was both a disability narrative and a sexually provocative film, addressing our relationship to porn long before Pleasure was in the embryo stage. The tender romance and family drama of God’s Own Country wasn’t a sexual awakening story, but it did fill the slot for explicit sex. Like this year’s Luzzu, though, it also tackled a changing industry that the family had been involved in for generations, and the economic precarity that they were now experiencing. Similarly, 2019’s Grand Jury Prize winner, The Souvenir, about a young woman finding her voice as a director in a male-dominated industry, could check the box of a landmark romance (like God’s Own Country) and a mother-daughter story.
It’s perhaps, then, unsurprising that the two most original films of the 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Competition are also the most zeitgeisty, each somewhat dealing with pandemic life, despite being made well before we’d even heard of SARS-CoV-2. They’re both also written and directed by women from South America. Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud is about a mysterious cloud that descends on the entire world, confining people to their homes for weeks, months, and then years. On the surface, it’s a prescient film about lockdown life, but it’s more of a dissection of a relationship, about how two people who are thrown together cope with unpleasant realities. The couple end up stuck together after a one-night stand, but unlike A Good Wife or An Unhappy Family, their struggles and differences have little to do with patriarchal norms.
The best film of the festival, Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, features a little vignette in which the earth is hit by a meteor, and a sort-of pandemic lifestyle becomes the norm. I won’t spoil the details because it’s one of the film’s best laugh-out-loud moments. If the pandemic-adjacent story was the hook, I’m glad Sundance picked the film up, because it’s one of the most visually inventive, emotionally resonant, and laugh-out-loud films I’ve seen this year. Weeks later, I can still recall with perfect clarity certain scenes and images. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t until the film played the International Film Festival of Rotterdam that it actually won any awards.
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