January 27, 2011 / 10:26 PM / 9 years ago

Sundance films expose secretive lives in Iraq, Iran

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - A fictional account of the egomaniacal son of Saddam Hussein and a film about two Iranian teenage girls experimenting with sexuality are among the many foreign films winning over audiences at Sundance.

The Sundance Film Festival is still largely known for U.S. dramatic features and documentaries but has steadily increased its emphasis on foreign films, even starting a world cinema contest six years ago to raise overseas filmmakers’ profile.

Officials with the Sundance Institute, which backs the festival, say 30 percent of its work year-round is dedicated to international outreach, and the festival’s programmers have increased their globetrotting to find top-notch films either made overseas or dealing with subjects in foreign lands.

“Sundance is so American at its core that it has been a continual challenge” to expand globally, festival director John Cooper told Reuters. “(But) it’s added a lot to the festival.”

This year’s foreign films, as well as those with U.S.-born directors who set their film in foreign lands, have hailed from countries including Spain, France, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Belgium and many others. But two films — one about Iraq and the other set in Iran — especially are winning raves.


“The Devil’s Double,” a riveting gangster action drama that is a fictional imagining of an Iraqi army lieutenant’s true tale of becoming the body double for Saddam Hussein’s notorious eldest son, Uday Hussein, has drawn critical acclaim.

Set in the late 1980s, the movie opens with sweeping images of an Iraq undamaged by war and shows Latif Yahia, being summoned to become Uday Hussein’s body double, or “fiday”, forced to undergo plastic surgery and discard his former life.

Yahia shadows Hussein and discovers the unstable eldest son of Saddam constantly consuming cocaine and alcohol, partying in nightclubs, and arrogantly having sex with any woman he picks, including school girls and a bride on her wedding day. He often rapes them — all while protected by an army of bodyguards.

“The reality was far more grim than anything we could do,” director Lee Tamahori, who first made his mark with “Once Were Warriors” before turning his attention to Hollywood movies, told the premiere night audience.

Britain’s Dominic Cooper scored a standing ovation for his performance in both roles, the unstable Hussein and the morally challenged Yahia, who lives in a decadent world of designer suits while being surrounded by violence and torture.


“Circumstance,” has also earned high praise for its take on sexuality, personal expression and cultural barriers in Iran as two affluent teen girls experiment with music, underground clubs and eventually their sexual feelings for each other.

Director Maryam Keshavarz, said she to hoped to break new ground in Iranian cinema.

“It deals with a lot issues that haven’t been dealt with in Iranian cinema before, primarily looking at sexuality, looking at religion, fanaticism, obsession,” she told Reuters.

The film, which deals with an affluent Iranian family that starts to break apart when the brother and sister move in different directions, is entered in the U.S. dramatic competition here at Sundance because it was partially financed in the United States and the director is U.S. born and raised.

Still, Keshavarz said the movie reflected her experiences with strong, young Iranian women, “their struggle and their incredible strength,” when she regularly traveled to Iran until three years ago. The movie was made in Lebanon and, if it is ever seen in Iran, would likely be controversial.

“It won’t be probably looked on as favorable (in Iran), because it shows the resilience of young people and their desire to get around all the restrictions,” she said.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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