Documentary

Sundance Film Festival 2021: Feature docs to watch for

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is upon us, running from January 28 through February 3. What had come to mean star-studded premieres and high-wattage shop talk taking place in snowscape ...
January 27, 2021

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is upon us, running from January 28 through February 3. What had come to mean star-studded premieres and high-wattage shop talk taking place in snowscape haven Park City, Utah, is now a fully virtual experience thanks to the ongoing pandemic.

According to Sundance senior programmer Harry Vaughn, the COVID-19 pandemic forced programmers and organizers to not only rethink and redesign the festival, but also to drastically cut the number of films screened. “That meant letting go of excellent projects. So that hurt,” Vaughn tells Realsceen. “The flip side, of course, is that every film accepted is very strong.”

Adding to the list of challenges was gauging which docs would be ready in time and which had endured delays due to the pandemic. “I was really startled and moved to see so many doc filmmakers send us rough cuts, given all the roadblocks they were facing,” Vaughn adds. “Their drive and tenacity really ignited a sense of urgency and excitement in our selection process.”

The following Q&A is taken from Realscreen‘s conversation with Vaughn and has been edited for length and clarity.

Is there one (or more) documentary that is controversial? 

I hope so! Controversy leads to great conversation. Theo Anthony is doing things in the doc space that feel totally fresh and All Light, Everywhere is certainly going to generate conversation. His film questions whether cameras act as weapons rather than recorders of facts, and he even sees himself, and his project, as occasionally complicit in acts of unfair surveillance. It’s a fascinating, self-reflexive watch.

Are there any one or more documentaries that reflect the ongoing political tensions in the U.S.?

There sure are.

Nanfu Wang [In the Same Breath] is one of the only filmmakers I know who can tell a massive geo-political story on such personal terms. There’s a real no-holds-barred approach to her investigations of COVID’s origins. She not only interrogates China and America’s eerily similar initial response to the pandemic, but also gives front-line workers a platform to speak about their trauma in a way that completely undid me. It’s one thing to hear about their heroism in the news, it’s another to watch them try and process grief and exhaustion directly on camera. And Nanfu captures their burden with incredible empathy.

I’d also flag My Name is Pauli Murray and Summer of Soul as landmark American stories that we should all know about but that’ve all but been erased from our history books. Huge kudos to the RBG filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen for spotlighting Murray — a nonbinary black lawyer who initiated, alongside their colleague Ginsburg, some of the biggest civil rights decisions of the 20th century. I’m ashamed I didn’t know who they were, but I’m so grateful I do now.

Also, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson hops into the director’s chair and unearths a treasure trove of footage from the so-called “Black Woodstock” of 1969 — a massive African American music celebration that, up till now, has been overtaken by the prevailing narrative of the mostly white-attended Woodstock, which happened the same summer, just 100 miles away. Thompson reclaims a huge slice of black cultural history in this film and crafts a gorgeous ode to this concert series. I feel like this is going to be a big film that deserves to make waves and be seen.

I’d be remiss not to also mention Pedro Kos’s Rebel Hearts – a really delightful doc about progressive nuns in 1960s Hollywood fighting the Catholic Church and its engrained patriarchy. It’s a great look back but also a pertinent reminder of how little has changed in women’s fight for gender equality, especially in religious circles.

Were there any emerging themes you noticed during the selection process? 

The issue of reclaiming history was big this year. Not only with Pauli Murray, Summer of Love and Rebel Hearts, but also in Rita Moreno’s bio doc [Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It], where she bluntly breaks down the systemic racism and sexism she constantly endured and fought against in order to become the enduring star she’s celebrated as today. The same applies to Jamila Wignot’s Ailey — she gives an incredibly intimate lens into the thoughts and musings of an artist so many of us value [choreographer Alvin Ailey], but mainly from his Revelations work. She lets us into his world for the first time, and in doing so, changes how we see him and his art.

The pandemic and the racial justice movement find their way into many of our films, most notably in Pete Nick’s Homeroom [pictured]. He was shooting his final film in his Oakland trilogy, observing students gradually becoming activists, and then — bam — COVID hit and, soon after, the nationwide racial protests erupted. And to Pete’s enormous credit, he kept shooting and rode this volatile wave, observing these kids blossom into visible, articulate, center-stage activists in the tight span of a few months. You literally watch teenagers become adults in front of your eyes. It’s really moving and a testament to Pete’s skills as a vérité filmmaker.

Do you anticipate streamers having the biggest impact in the doc market for this edition of the festival? 

I don’t know. We have a significant amount of sales titles so it will definitely be interesting to see which buyers bite the biggest. Our active goal was to populate our lineup with films without distribution. We wanted to lift up as many filmmakers as possible to buyers. It’s always been a goal of the festival, but this year it felt especially urgent.

Any first-time/emerging filmmakers that stood out to you that we should know about?

Look out for Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt. Their film Cusp marks the arrival of two major talented filmmakers.

In terms of diverse voices, what voices and perspectives are playing out at Sundance this year? 

Our U.S. Doc Comp lineup is composed of 11 female identifying filmmakers, so 64% of the competition. In our World Doc lineup, it’s at 50%. And in U.S. doc, 73% of filmmakers identify as BIPOC. We think it reflects how diverse documentary stories are and should be.

Was there a more focused attempt to select docs from diverse voices?

There almost didn’t need to be an active “focus” because we were inundated with a myriad of brilliant films made by women, queer folk and BIPOC filmmakers. So much of the strong work we saw came from minority filmmakers and centered on underserved communities, so it was never an active choice so much as a given that we’d select these voices and stories. They were simply among the strongest stories we saw in our process.

How do you see filmmakers benefiting from a hybrid or full online program, which will, in Sundance Festival director Tabitha Jackson’s words, “make festivals accessible in a way they never have been before?” 

Of course, we’re all hungry for in-person, collective viewing again. I look back at old Sundance Park City pictures and I feel for this class of 2021 filmmakers who won’t have the chance to see their films on the big screen this time around. But Tabitha is right — an online festival is an accessible one in ways we’d never have imagined prior to this pandemic. We finally get to bring films to people’s homes, and I know that this will have a profound impact on festival viewing going forward. But it’s been a silver lining of a trying season, that’s for sure, knowing that folks who wouldn’t be able to get to Park City get to see Sundance from their living rooms.

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