Opinion

Sundance 2021 walked the walk

The virtual festival lived up to its stated emphasis on diversity and inclusion

Park City, Utah, is magical this time of year — or so I've been told. Every far-flung film buff has, at some point, enviously consumed the annual Sundance Film Festival dispatches, which describe a flurry of non-stop movie premieres, exclusive parties, and how Main Street is so saturated with celebrities that you might physically bump into one if you aren't watching where you're going. Names like the Eccles Theater, or the Egyptian, or even the Library (though you're supposed to roll your eyes at that one) are hallowed and aspirational. Sundance might not be as glitzy as Cannes, or as prestigious as Venice, or as political as the Berlinale, but it's just about the most important date on the American film calendar, short of the Oscar ceremony.

What is Sundance, then, without Park City? Without the parties and the premieres and the unhealthy consumption of coffee and the prestige puffer coats and the tweeted complaints about waiting in the cold for the free shuttle bus to arrive?

Admittedly, Sundance's posh, wealthy, resort-town setting has always been somewhat at odds with its emphasis on diversity and expanded opportunity. This year, though, as a result of the pandemic, the festival moved to a one-time-only hybrid-online format, which allowed anyone from around the country to join in the events — including this first-timer. Any initial skepticism dissipated quickly: the 2021 Sundance Film Festival wasn't only a triumph of adapting to the circumstances, but of continuing to honor its values on- and off-screen.

With the notable exception of the website, which is needlessly bewildering to navigate, Sundance could almost fool you into thinking it had always been virtual. Typically, one of the biggest complaints against online film festivals is that movies don't end up feeling like "events" the same way they do at in-person fests, where audiences organically spill out into the lobby to chatter about what they just saw. To maintain the sense of ceremony around the screenings, Sundance limited viewers to a three-hour window for premieres, meaning everyone more or less reacted to what movies were just "let out" all at once (though I didn't participate, Sundance also cleverly offered interactive waiting rooms before screenings, where you could mingle with fellow attendees).

The festival also made adjustments that emphasized their attention to making the festival a welcoming, respectful, and accessible space, even in the privacy of your own home. Continuing a tradition that began last year, every single movie began with an introductory acknowledgment of the Ute people, the "ancestral keepers of the land Sundance sits on physically," followed by an acknowledgment of the lands audiences around the country might be joining from. Though in the wrong hands such a video could have felt like a performative exercise, various tribal members voiced the acknowledgments and provided the footage, so the segment felt unencumbered and sincere. Additionally, the website featured an easy-to-locate accessibility button for visitors, offering 10 different modifications including "dyslexia friendly" text, bigger text, and a screen reader. Every film had the option of closed captions. And unlike many other virtual film festivals I attended last year, Sundance's watermark, which protects the films against pirating, was hard to notice and took nothing away from a pleasant streaming experience.

On-screen representation was no less impressive. Though many major film groups, ranging from the Golden Globes to the Academy Awards, pay lip service to expanding opportunities for inclusion, Sundance actually does the work in a way that never feels like tokenism or organizational virtue signaling. The Sundance Institute, an incubator for independent filmmakers that stresses diversity and active outreach as core values year round, deserves credit. But Sundance also has some of the best programming in the business: Even winnowed down to 72 feature films this year from last year's 128, the 2021 lineup featured 28 first features and represented 29 different countries. Across the whole program, 50 percent of films involved at least one woman director, six were by non-binary artists, and more than half were made by creators of color, Variety reports.

Sundance's lineup, as a result, was vibrant and varied. CODA, a drama about a child of deaf parents that I called the first great movie of 2021, became the only film in the festival's history to win all three top prizes in the U.S. Dramatic category (the grand jury prize, the directing prize, the audience award, in addition to a special jury prize for best ensemble). CODA's accomplishments don't end there: Its sale to Apple Studios, for $25 million, was a Sundance record. In another, similar Sundance first, Hive — an empowering story about a single mother fighting to make ends meet after her husband disappeared in the Kosovo War — swept the top three awards in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Notably, both of the top dramatic prize-takers were women directors: Siân Heder and Blerta Basholli respectively.

Even with the consolidated awards attention, though, there was lots to admire across the virtual program. Judas and the Black Messiah, about the murder of Fred Hampton, features a stunning performance by Daniel Kaluuya, whose only competitor in a potential Oscar head-to-head in my eyes might be Chadwick Boseman. Though it had its world premiere at Venice and thus appeared in Sundance's "Spotlight" sidebar, The World to Come is everything I'd wanted from Ammonite: a crackling period romance set on the American frontier, with fantastic performances and a terrific score. We're All Going to the World's Fair, a grown-up technohorror, was another favorite that should absolutely not be missed.

Though I didn't get to see the festival's most popular documentary, Questlove's Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which won the U.S. Documentary Competition's grand jury prize and audience award, I nerded out to Edgar Wright's appreciation of the band Sparks, The Sparks Brothers, and was wowed by the cinematography and execution of The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which isn't done justice by its "where are they now" logline. Flee, a mostly-animated story of an Afghan refugee that won the grand jury prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition category, was another film that struck me as the kind of special, otherwise unassuming feature that is a hallmark of Sundance's programming.

Having wanted to go to Park City for so long, I'd expected to be let down by experiencing the festival primarily from my couch. And while the organizers made the festival as enjoyable as possible for home audiences, there were still limits to what Sundance could do: there will never, for example, be a solution for the numerous distractions and temptations that surround us during home viewing. I'm especially sympathetic to the filmmakers, and can only imagine the conflicting emotions of achieving the lifelong dream of being in the festival while not able to listen to or watch audiences react to their projects in real time.

But strictly from the audience perspective, virtual Sundance was so successful that it'll be difficult for the festival to return next year to excluding people who can't swing a two-week mid-winter vacation to Park City. Certainly Sundance regulars missed the parties and hobnobbing and complaining about getting shut out of Purple Sage. But for new converts to Sundance — myself among them — the 2021 festival wasn't a compromise. It was a precious treat.

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