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Sundancing through the pandemic

Tabitha Jackson, new director of the Sundance Film Festival, wants a "festival of discovery" despite all the change forced on it by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of The Sundance Institute.)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The Sundance Film Festival thought it had evaded COVID-19 last Feb. 1, when it confidently announced Tabitha Jackson as its new director, succeeding the outgoing John Cooper.

The British-born Jackson, 50, is the first woman and person of colour to head the annual celebration of indie cinema, which was founded more than 40 years ago by Hollywood icon Robert Redford.

Jackson’s appointment came at the close of Sundance 2020, after another successful fest of packed theatres in its mountain locale of Park City, Utah. COVID at that point was mainly elsewhere in the world — the first U.S. case, a traveller from China, had been confirmed just 11 days earlier.

Everybody assumed that by the time Sundance 2021 arrived the following January, the virus would be yesterday’s news. How wrong they were.

“By late March, early April, we knew that we needed to scenario-plan for the pandemic,” Jackson recalled in an interview via email.

Jackson was uniquely qualified for the challenges ahead. An award-winning filmmaker, producer and programmer drawn to fresh new ways of storytelling, she had a hand in Clio Barnard’s groundbreaking documentary “The Arbor” and in launching the free-floating and Oscar-nominated Black community chronicle “Hale County, This Morning, This Evening,” among other notable works. Prior to becoming festival director, Jackson had for six years headed the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program.

After briefly discussing whether or not to proceed with Sundance 2021, Jackson and her team opted to soldier on with a combination of virtual and in-person screenings.

The tinkering over the exact hybrid combination continued until late last month, when Sundance made the hard decision, forced by the growing COVID threat, to scrap plans to have in-person screenings at one of its many Park City venues.

The smaller and shorter Sundance that begins Jan. 28 and continues through Feb. 2 — 73 feature films instead of last year’s 118, running seven days instead of the usual 10 — will now be mostly virtual, screening on a platform custom-designed for the festival.

These will be accompanied by a series of in-person “satellite screenings” at nearly 30 theatres across the U.S., each observing strict COVID protocols as to audience size and spacing.

Highlights of this year’s fest include the world premiere of Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” an Oscar-buzzed political thriller set within the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. The pair previously teamed-up for the Sundance 2017 breakout hit “Get Out,” which went on to get multiple Oscar nominations.

Another hot Sundance premiere is sure to be Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three,” a dark comedy about a suicide pact between two friends, starring Christopher Abbott (“Possessor”), Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford and Henry Winkler. And expect much talk about Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s “Wild Indian,” a murder drama of belated reckoning starring Canada’s Michael Greyeyes (“Blood Quantum”). Co-stars include Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth and Phoenix Wilson.

The online and satellite screenings at Sundance are an unexpected upside to the constrained reality of our locked-down world. They’ll allow Sundance to reach a far greater audience than the tens of thousands of people who annually make the trek to Park City. Instead of just reading about Sundance, film-lovers around the world can actually participate in parts of it — including some free events.

“The possibilities of reach, participation, and accessibility have been exponentially increased this year and given that most of the passes have already sold out and we have such a rich offering of free events this year, I am cautiously optimistic that we can deliver on those possibilities,” Jackson said.

She’s particularly excited about this year’s New Frontier program at Sundance. This showcase of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (XR) and other cutting-edge film technology is generally seen as a sideshow attraction during Sundance, because the in-person screenings command the most attention.

Not this year. The New Frontier program promises to be one of the most popular happenings at Sundance 2021, because the entire world can participate, thanks to the $25 (U.S.) Explorer Pass being sold through the festival website. The pass will also allow access to some Sundance shorts and the fest’s on-demand Indie Series program of four specially curated films. There’s Canadian content in New Frontier this year: a preview of the AR-series “Fortune!,” co-produced by the NFB, about the impact of money and wealth on humanity, due to launch on smartphones, tablets and social media in 2022.

For those with a VR headset, this year’s New Frontier program comes with a specially built virtual cinema where they can experience the next best thing to being there in person. In digital avatar form, participants will be able to safely congregate in a virtual space called Film Party, an interactive bar with six screens and other rooms where filmgoers can chat about the festival, just as they would do in person.

Jackson describes the virtual cinema as “a fully realized social space that uses avatars, webcam technology and proximity audio, so that you can mingle, bump into friends and strangers, and go to Film Party to talk about the films you have just seen. This is a truly innovative development that just wouldn’t have happened in a normal year.”

Asked for her guiding philosophy for Sundance as she takes the reins in a time unlike any other in the festival’s history, Jackson summed it up this way:

“Connection. Community. Meaning-Making. I think the festival’s greatest strength is in the community of artists that believes in Sundance and trusts us to launch their work, and those first audiences who trust us to introduce exciting new independent work, distinctive voices and breakthrough talent that might set the conversation for the rest of the year … I am delighted that we can double down on our promise to be a festival of discovery.”

How to click your way to Sundance 2021:

It may seem at first as if Canadians are being shut out of Sundance 2021, because most of the films screening online will be available only to residents of the U.S. and international press. (Blame copyright restrictions and piracy fears for the geoblocking.)

This means that Canadians won’t be able to see most of the buzzed-about Sundance offerings until the films arrive in theatres or on streaming platforms later in the year — but that’s always been the case unless they had the time and money to travel to Park City, Utah, to attend in-person screenings.

They can, however, enjoy unprecedented Sundance online access this year, via the new Explorer Pass, a $25 (U.S.) festival access plan, available through, that allows users unfettered access to Sundance’s New Frontier programs, which showcases state-of-the-art technology and storytelling techniques.

This includes an early look at the Canadian augmented reality series “Fortune!”, co-produced by the NFB, Arte France and Atlas V, which examines how money and wealth (or lack thereof) affects all of us. Premiering at Sundance 2021, the series is due to launch on smartphones, tablets and social media in 2022.

Another benefit the pass affords is the Indie Series of four on-demand indie films. Topics range from sexuality and disability (“4 Feet High”) to online dating (“These Days”) to community gamesmanship (“Would You Rather”) to a shocking breach of medical ethics (“Seeds of Deceit”).

Peter Howell is a movie critic in Toronto. Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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