FILM LEGEND Robert Redford had warned that this year's Sundance Film Festival would be different, and he wasn't kidding. In a year where star power has been thinner on the ground, and fewer deals appealing to studios, this year's event has focused on the one constant audiences now expect in an ever-fragmented world: change.
Leading the seismic shift: a record number of female filmmakers who, for the first time, now match their male counterparts one on one, organisers say. That, together with a broad, sweeping look at sexuality, has ensured this year's Sundance is controversial and, for audiences, more relevant than ever.
Festival director John Cooper likens the event to sitting on a powder keg of talent that's waiting to explode and points to Australasia as a key territory that kicks the process off.
''We always look to Australia and New Zealand,'' he says.''There's always great ideas coming through, clearly and succinctly. Filmmakers there are always ready to go. They're super organised. They're hungry. This year has been no different.''
Cooper points to talent such as Jane Campion, whose upcoming UKTV series TOP OF THE LAKE screened back to back all day, in a festival first. ''We've got more female filmmakers than ever this year," Cooper adds.''I'm not exactly sure why, but there's been a noticeable shift."
Anne Fontaine's first English-language film -– the controversial Australian feature TWO MOTHERS – has screened to wildly expectant crowds. "I only can be happy about that," she said, prior to premiere.
The film, which releases in Australia later this year, hasn't been without detractors, though. Industry bible The Hollywood Reporter branded it as an ''absurd forbidden-love scenario'', while its world premiere on Friday had a bizarrely light-hearted feel and ''generated some nervous giggles and a fair amount of unintentional laughter'', the Los Angeles Times said.
The film focuses on the relationship between two lifelong friends (played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright), who fall in love with one another's sons (played by Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville). It is based on a novella by Doris Lessing.
Tales of forbidden have loomed large at this year's event. Guy Pearce plays a married music teacher distracted by a foreign exchange student, in Drake Doremus' riveting drama BREATHE IN. Mia Wasikowska stars opposite Nicole Kidman in Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook's stylishly offbeat horror STOKER, in which she plots to elope with her deranged uncle (Matthew Goode).
Among those also registering at this year's festival: Toni Collette (in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's THE WAY WAY BACK), Radha Mitchell (in Michael Polish's BIG SUR) and Frances O'Connor (in Frances Gregorini's EMMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES).
Alex Gibney's documentary about Julian Assange, WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS, is also due to have its world premiere at Sundance.
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Australia).