The movies still feel like Sundance. But without the snow, parties and all the full premieres, will Sundance still feel like Sundance?
That is the question hanging in the air Tuesday after the Sundance Film Festival announced a 2021 program that will feature intriguing independent film titles, including the racial drama “Passing,” starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, the documentary “ Rebel Hearts, “And Sundance’s only curiosity,” Cryptozoo, “a bizarre animated film about a zoo inhabited by mythological creatures with the voice of Michael Cera.
But the sprawling festival, which usually winds up over a cold week and a half in Park City, Utah, had to go largely online this year amid a still raging pandemic. This is a unique challenge for Tabitha Jackson, who this year became the festival’s new director after six years as director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary program.
When Jackson took the position of outgoing director John Cooper last February – a promotion that made her both the first woman and the first black person to lead Sundance – she wondered what made her the most revered independent film festival in the world World could bring. “I looked at an incredible machine that is almost 40 years old,” she said in an interview, “and thought,” What role will I play in it? “
Just a month later, it was clear that Jackson’s opening year was going to be far from typical. In March, the rapidly growing Covid-19 pandemic forced the South-by-Southwest Festival to be canceled just days before the planned event. Cinemas across the country soon closed, and some of the most talked-about titles from Sundance 2020, such as the rough-and-tumble comedy “Zola,” have been removed from the calendar with no release date.
By June, Jackson knew that she had to schedule a Sundance, which was mainly played on the Internet. “The core of the festival, being digital, seemed necessary only to our public health and our health, so that we could have some certainty about what we were up to,” she said. And much to the surprise of the programmers, the flood of submissions largely kept up with the previous year.
Program director Kim Yutani said, “The difference was negligible, which was really scary and very encouraging.”
Even so, Jackson was determined to downsize the sometimes crowded Sundance cast: the 2021 program consists of 72 features, down from the usual 120, and the festival has contracted a bit and now runs from January 28th to February 3rd. “Other festivals have chosen to go longer – we have chosen to be shorter and more concise,” said Jackson. “It’s a more intense burst of energy.”
In addition to an online platform that will make these films more accessible to audiences outside Park City than ever before, Sundance will add a virtual hangout where viewers can talk to each other and recommend things they’ve seen. That sense of excitement, Jackson said, “is such a value that we have at the personal festival where people in shuttle buses talk about movies they have just seen and liked. We wanted to recreate that. “
High-profile films designed to make people chat include the suicide pact comedy “On the Count of Three” by actor-director Jerrod Carmichael, “CODA”, a drama about a young woman with deaf parents, and “Land”, the directorial debut of actress Robin Wright from the “House of Cards”. (Of the films selected for the festival’s two narrative competition lineups, 50 percent are made by women.)
Sundance has a robust documentary series too, and Jackson is particularly high in “Summer Of Soul (… Or When The Revolution Couldn’t Be Televised),” a musical documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, an event celebrating Africa – American music that took place the same summer as Woodstock. Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Jackson even put together a contingency plan for in-person premieres: depending on the curfew level and public health guidelines in late January, some of these Sundance films could also be seen at drive-in screenings in major cities and in independent cinemas across the way the country. “We still hope that audiences across the country can go somewhere to see a movie together,” she said. “We’ll plan until we can’t anymore.”
However, if that plan fails, Jackson hopes a virtual Sundance can still convey the same magic from a laptop or TV in the living room. And if the audience is really eager to simulate the Sundance experience, they can always put on a woolen hat or thick coat before they hit play.
“We want people to get dressed for Sundance, whatever that means,” Jackson said with a laugh. “So if you want to be wrapped in warm winter clothes, take a picture of it and we will put it on the online platform.”
The full list is available at sundance.org.