Canadian directors ready for Sundance film fest

Canadian filmmakers are debuting their latest projects at the Sundance Film Festival, an important venue that puts independent movies into the international spotlight.
Yung Chang's documentary China Heavyweight follows Qi Moxiang, a coach who scours the Chinese countryside searching for potential fighting stars. (Sun Shaoguang/Sundance)

Canadian filmmakers are debuting their latest projects at the Sundance Film Festival, an important venue that puts independent movies into the international spotlight.

One high-profile competitor is Toronto filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal's Payback, an NFB production based on Margaret Atwood's Massey Lectures book about debt, its influence on society and its effect on the planet.

"When I started reading it — it was this unbelievable, almost like a roller coaster, ride through every possible idea of what indebtedness, of what that symbiotic relationship of owing and being owed, means," Baichwal told Jian Ghomeshi during a special live-audience episode of CBC Radio's Q on Friday.

"The complexity of her exploration completely hooked me."

Three Canadian docs are to screen in competition (World Documentary program) at the Sundance festival, including China Heavyweight by Montreal filmmaker Yung Chang.

Being accepted by the annual indie movie celebration established by Robert Redford and "one of the pre-eminent film festivals in the world" is a real honour, Chang told CBC News.

Winnipeg filmmaking duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky raised funds online to make their film Indie Game: The Movie, which debuts at Sundance. (Ian McCausland)

"It means your film gets to be an on international stage and a lot of eyes will be watching it," he said.

Chinese-born Canadian director Chang said he feels "a little more pressure with this sophomore film," following the success of his feature debut Up the Yangtze in 2008. 

Though Up the Yangtze garnered positive reviews after its world premiere in Vancouver in fall 2007, it soared to new heights after screening at Sundance the following January, when it secured distribution deals as well as a host of international fans.

Though Chang said he finds the competitive nature of film festivals difficult, he's looking forward to China Heavyweight's world premiere in Sundance. He'll be there accompanied by the movie's star — a charismatic boxing coach who scours the Chinese countryside searching for potential star fighters.

"He hasn't seen the movie yet. I'm saving it for the world premiere so that the audience can see him come up and he can hopefully relish that moment a little bit," Chang said.

"There's something amazing about film festivals and that's this camaraderie, this environment where people who love watching movies come together and share the experience. That's what I'm looking forward to at Sundance. That's something very unique and special."

For Winnipeg-based filmmaking team Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, the Sundance debut of their Indie Game: The Movie will also represent an important milestone: the first time a large audience will see it.

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=1738 size=small]

"We've only shown it to, like, 20 people. Actually having an audience at Sundance — critics, distributors — is crazy, overwhelming," said Pajot.

Having their tale about independent video game developers selected out of thousands of submissions has been a strange and surreal experience, Swirsky added.

"It's something you dream about or you always aspire to — don't say it out loud. Certainly when you're planning the movie, you don't write that down as part of your strategy: 'Premiere at Sundance.'"

Just making it into the lineup was a learning experience, since the duo were inundated with emails, messages and attention about their film — a shoestring-budget effort that benefited from $130,000 the couple raised online. They've spent the last few weeks finishing the movie and preparing promotional materials before heading down to Utah.

"It's special being from Winnipeg and making this film. Winnipeg is full of small teams, go-getters, people that want to do something on a bigger scale... but on their own terms. That's what this film is about," Pajot said.

"Indie games can reach millions of people. Like us, they're making something they're passionate about."

The festival's screenings for all three Canadian docs have sold out.

Canadian content

Philippe Falardeau's acclaimed drama Monsieur Lazhar, playing in the Sundance spotlight program, is among the other Canadian entries at the festival. The New Frontiers section will screen the films Bear 71, Bestiary and The Conquerors, while Surveillant by Quebec's Yan Giroux is part of the international narrative short films slate.

Leone Stars, the in-progress documentary project that won the annual Pitch This competition at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, was selected for the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.

Another film with a Canadian connection is the U.S. comedy For a Good Time Call, directed by Toronto's Jamie Travis and starring Vancouver-born actor Seth Rogen.

Other buzz-worthy American titles set for the festival include Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Spike Lee's drama Red Hook Summer and new narrative features starring Paul Giamatti, Frank Langella, Bradley Cooper, Vera Farmiga, Michael Cera, Sean Penn and Kirsten Dunst.

Sundance runs Jan. 19-29.