The Sundance Film Festival returns to in-person premieres this January at Park City, Utah. Agents, studio executives and movie lovers will resume their annual pilgrimage to the venue after a year of virtual experience as the previous edition was held virtually.
Culling from 3,762 feature submissions, the Sundance programmers chose a diverse slate of 82 titles — including 39 by first-time feature directors — in a variety of genres that explore myriad themes, like tackling grief and battling the status quo.
“We’ve been through a lot these past two years and I think that has had a huge influence on what artists are concentrating on,” Sundance’s director of programming, Kim Yutani, said. “Some of that is fighting the system, really calling into question institutions, corporations. We saw a lot of films that are looking at the fight for democracy.”
Examples include Rory Kennedy’s documentary “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing,” “The Exiles,” a nonfiction film centering on three dissidents after the Tiananmen Square massacre; and two films that examine the Jane Collective - the documentary “The Janes,” directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes and the other, “Call Jane,” is a fictional feature from Phyllis Nagy.
“It’s kind of the hallmark of independent work, isn’t it? Resistance to the status quo,” said the festival director, Tabitha Jackson. “This year, it’s reflecting on the fact that we are in this age of reckoning, this age of accountability.”
Of the submissions to Sundance this year, only 28 percent were from women. Yet among all the features selected, 52 percent were directed by women. When asked whether the programmers decided to boost women auteurs over men, they steered around the question, saying they are always looking to promote female filmmakers. Jackson added: “The slightly depressing fact is that the figure of 28 percent submissions from women has remained pretty static across the years. It is a figure that we would wish to see higher because of what it indicates about the state of the industry. It’s surprising that so few are submitting.”
The majority of the films at the festival, which runs Jan. 20-30, will arrive without distribution, a fact that Jackson calls “kind of cool.” But they’re also debuting at a time when the theatrical distribution is still depressed amid consumers’ fears about returning to the movies.
Films premiered at the Sundance are endured as some of the year’s best making a run for awards: Abi Damaris Corbin’s directorial debut, 892, Cha Cha Real Smooth directed by Cooper Raiff, Am I OK? directed by Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, a mockumentary helmed by Adamma Ebo, Oliver Hermanus’s Living, Sharp Stick directed by Lena Dunham, When You Finish Saving the World directed by Jesse Eisenberg, Aftershock directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee.
Sundance is moving forward with in-person screenings, but the emergence of the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID could complicate those plans. The Berlin Film Festival, for instance, has reportedly explored the possibility of delaying its February event as Europe deals with a surge in cases. Even before Omicron, Sundance had put certain safety measures in place. It requires attendees to show proof of vaccination and will mandate masks at screenings, for instance. The festival will also offer to test and require proof of negative tests for people attending some events.
“The festival is designed to be flexible and accommodate the vagaries of our current public health situation,” says Jackson. “The science isn’t in yet, so it’s going to be a couple of weeks before we understand the prevalence of Omicron and the seriousness of it. This is a daily conversation. We know we have the capability of putting on a great festival, whatever happens. It’s just about responding sensibly to the facts on the ground.”