Sundance Film Festival 2023 kicks off with a decidedly international selection

From French-Moroccan director Sofia Alaoui's feature debut to a trio of Iranian directors, the event aims to present a diverse offering

The Sundance Film Festival returns with in-person screenings, although the press and public can still log in online. Photo: Sundance Institute
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The film industry might still be in the middle of awards season, building up to the Oscars, but that won’t stop the clamour to find next year’s contenders.

The first port of call is Sundance Film Festival, which gets under way this week in Utah’s mountainous Park City. The ski town has played host to this showcase for independent cinema since the early 1980s, when directors such as Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers kickstarted their careers.

Even during the past two pandemic-hit years, as the festival pivoted from physical to online screenings, it’s been the major starting block for indies that have hopes of cutting big deals and garnering awards. Films such as Cha Cha Real Smooth (bought by Apple TV+ for $15 million), and Oscar contenders Good Luck To You, Leo Grande and Living, all had their premieres at last year’s Sundance.

Now the festival is returning to in-person screenings, although the press and public unable to travel to Utah can still log in online. “The online platform allowed for a more diverse audience, a significant number of people who had never come to Sundance before,” John Nein, Sundance’s senior programmer and strategic initiatives director, tells The National, “and that underscores a value of accessibility that has always been important to us.”

Sundance Film Festival 2023 is on from Thursday until January 29. Photo: The Sundance Institute

This year, French-Moroccan director Sofia Alaoui brings her feature debut Animalia to the festival. The Casablanca-born filmmaker won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2020 for her supernatural short So What If The Goats Die, and continues pushing the boundaries of Arab cinema in Animalia.

“Sofia was already a filmmaker we were very excited about,” says Nein. “This is an incredibly inventive, thoughtful film about so many things — class, maternity, religion and spirituality and humanity’s place in the world — and some of the sequences and cinematic moments are truly breathtaking.”

Playing in the World Cinema Dramatic category, the film stars Oumaima Barid, who previously featured in 2021’s Life Suits Me Well, and here plays a pregnant wife who undergoes a spiritual and mental awakening when an alien presence descends on Morocco.

“Sundance changed everything for me,” says Alaoui, speaking to The National shortly before the festival was due to get under way. “So I’m really happy they supported my first feature also because Sundance is a festival where new cinema [and filmmakers] can emerge. I’m really honoured to be there again.”

A still from Animalia by Sofia Alaoui, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Sundance Institute

The official selection also includes works by three female directors of Iranian descent.

Shayda, which features alongside Animalia, follows an Iranian mother and daughter who find refuge in an Australian women’s shelter to escape the woman's violent husband. The film is executive produced by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton and marks the first feature by Iranian-Australian director Noora Niasari.

“She’s making this movie inspired by the story of her mother. So it’s a very personal movie,” says Zar Amir Ebrahimi, the Iranian-born star who won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for Holy Spider and takes the lead here.

As Nein puts it, “There’s a remarkable number of films that deal with the bonds within a family” — notably The Persian Version, which unspools in the US Dramatic Competition.

Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz (whose 2011 film Circumstance won Sundance’s Audience Award: Dramatic), it tells of Iranian-American Leila (Layla Mohammadi) who gathers with her family in New York when her father is due to undergo a heart transplant. With vivid dance numbers and bright, poppy colours, this looks set to be a crowd-pleaser that also speaks to the Iranian-American experience.

Three films directed by women of Iranian descent have made the festival selection, including The Persian Version by Maryam Keshavarz. Photo: Sundance Institute/Andre Jaeger

Meanwhile, in the US Documentary strand, Joonam has filmmaker Sierra Urich exploring her own Iranian heritage — the country where both her mother Mitra and grandmother Behjat grew up. This non-fiction tale examines three generations of women, as Urich comes to terms with a country she’s only ever heard about through family stories and food. Everything from her grandmother’s experiences as a pre-teen bride to her mother’s teenage years during the Iranian Revolution is addressed.

“These independent voices are coming from all around the world,” adds Nein, who believes Sundance is becoming an increasingly “global proposition”. Other hot titles include Beyond Utopia, a documentary by Madeleine Gavin about families fleeing North Korea and seeking asylum away from the regime. Then there’s the much-anticipated Aum: The Cult at the End of the World, which deals with Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult responsible for, among other things, the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

For those keen on star-spotting, there’s also plenty on offer. Star Wars alumni Daisy Ridley stars as a morbid young woman in Sometimes I Think About Dying. Anna Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie team up in Eileen, the new film from Lady Macbeth’s William Oldroyd. And Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Succession) are paired in the dating tale Cat Person, directed by Susanna Fogel, who previously penned 2019’s Booksmart. Online or in-person, it looks set to be a cracking festival.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 to 30

Updated: January 19, 2023, 2:02 PM