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Virtual Sundance finds real audience

Controversial and misunderstood Irish pop star Sinéad O’Connor is the focus of "Nothing Compares," a documentary premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Jean-Christophe Bott.)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to prompt a new way of thinking, as the people behind the Sundance Film Festival have discovered.

Forced for a second year to put most of their films, talks and events online — the surging Omicron variant dashed plans for a hybrid in-person/online return to Park City, Utah — they’ve happily found that a virtual version of their annual celebration of independent cinema is incredibly popular.

Last year’s Sundance had fewer films and days than usual, yet thanks to the vast expanse of the internet it reached a total audience 2.7 times larger and far more global (120 countries) than the typical 11-day Utah edition. And it showed many films that are attracting awards attention, including the potential Oscar prospects “CODA,” “Summer of Soul,” “Flee” and “Passing.”

Organizers are hoping for more of the same for Sundance 2022, which begins Thursday and runs through Jan. 30. There will be 83 feature films (down from the normal 120) plus 59 shorts. Most of them are world premieres, hailing from 41 countries, with all of it presented online, supplemented stateside by a few in-theatre “satellite screenings.” Regular Canadian movie lovers can join in on some of the virtual fun (see below).

Even when COVID-19 finally ends — it will, won’t it? — Sundance will likely maintain a significant online presence, says festival director Tabitha Jackson, interviewed via email.

“We’re living in a transitional moment where making any fixed assertions about the future is unwise, but the truth is that although having an online dimension to our festival was massively accelerated by COVID, it also spoke to a need that we had already recognized … we knew that to expand our festival community was essential to our mission of meeting the moment.”

Jackson, the first woman and person of colour to head the fest, is also pleased that Sundance has continued its commitment to showcase a large number of films outside the dominant realm of straight white males. More than half of the 83 features at Sundance 2022 are directed by women (55 per cent), filmmakers of colour (35 per cent) and LGBTQ filmmakers (12 per cent).

Says Jackson: “We can only program based on what’s submitted and who submits, of course, but I am happy that this year continues the trend of programming more work by women, especially as the submission rates are still disappointingly low. This reveals that systemic barriers to gender parity are still in place. And while we do not work to quotas, we have a responsibility and a mission to work toward the kind of curatorial equity that more accurately represents the world of makers.”

The most buzzed-about film at Sundance 2022 is W. Kamau Bell’s “We Need to Talk About Cosby.” It’s a four-hour docuseries about comedian Bill Cosby, who blazed trails for Black entertainers during his nearly 50 years in show business. He became known as “America’s Dad,” but he hid a secret life as a sexual predator. The film looks to be as explosive as “Leaving Neverland,” the Michael Jackson exposé that premiered at Sundance 2019.

“We are extremely excited for audiences to watch W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries and anticipate that it will engage our viewers in many rich, complex conversations,” said Sundance programming director Kim Yutani via email.

“It found its place in our program by having a unique vantage point and way of tackling this crucial but challenging cultural conversation that is deft, thorough and exceedingly smart. We can’t wait to share it with viewers.”

Other Sundance 2022 highlights include:

“Nothing Compares” (Kathryn Ferguson): A documentary about controversial Irish pop star Sinéad O’Connor, a singer of uncommon voice and vision but also much personal pain, including the recent death of her teenage son, Shane;

“892” (Abi Damaris Corbin): A hostage drama starring John Boyega of “Star Wars” fame and the late Michael K. Williams, in his final screen role;

“Sharp Stick” (Lena Dunham): A sex comedy that marks the return of actor/director Dunham (TV’s “Girls”) to feature filmmaking 11 years after her “Tiny Furniture” debut;

“When You Finish Saving the World” (Jesse Eisenberg): Actor Eisenberg’s directorial debut, a generation gap comedy starring Julianne Moore and Vancouver’s Finn Wolfhard of TV’s “Stranger Things”;

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” (Adamma Ebo): A faux documentary satire about for-profit religion, starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown;

“2nd Chance” (Ramin Bahrani): The strange-but-true story of Richard Davis, a bankrupt pizzeria owner who in 1969 invented the modern-day bulletproof vest, only to find that it didn’t protect him against his own lies and hubris;

“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” (Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah): Videographers turned doc makers Simmons and Ozah first met hip-hop superstar Kanye West when he was 21 in 1998 and they’ve chronicled his highs, lows and controversies for this musical docuseries (part one, “Vision,” will screen at Sundance);

“Fire of Love” (Sara Dosa): A Canada/U.S. documentary about French scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft, a married couple whose unfettered love of volcanoes led to stunning discoveries and images but also tragedy;

“This Is Not a Ceremony” (Ahnahktsipiitaa/Colin Van Loon): An NFB-produced cinematic VR experience by Canada’s Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon), a Niitsitapi writer/director who unfolds a dreamscape that portrays Indigenous realities while challenging “colonial rules and assumptions.”

“Fire of Love” and “This Is Not a Ceremony” are part of a strong convoy of Canadian films and co-productions headed to Sundance 2022. The others are the features “Babysitter” (Monia Chokri), a screwball comedy starring Quebec actor/director Chokri and Nadia Tereszkiewicz about a sitter who’s “like a Mary Poppins of the libido”; “Framing Agnes” (Chase Joynt), a hybrid doc about a transgender pioneer; and “Midwives” (Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing), a documentary about imperilled midwives in western Myanmar. The Canuck Sundance crew also includes the live-action short “Bump,” by Toronto actor/director Maziyar Khatam, a story of toxic masculinity and male insecurity, as seen through the interactions of two guys who literally bump into each other on the street.

Another Sundance 2022 short is both a salute to indie film ingenuity and an amusing Canadian history lesson: “Stranger Than Rotterdam With Sara Driver,” an animated film by New York brothers Lewie and Noah Kloster told with cardboard cut-out puppets. It’s the bizarrely hilarious real-life tale of how indie producer Sara Driver agreed in 1982 to smuggle the world’s only known print of “C---sucker Blues,” the notorious sex-and-drugs Rolling Stones road movie, out of Nova Scotia and away from pursuing RCMP officers, in order to gain financing to make “Stranger Than Paradise,” director Jim Jarmusch’s acclaimed sophomore film.

One of the interesting things about Sundance 2022 is that despite its radical alteration by the safety provisions of the pandemic, there aren’t many films at the fest that directly deal with the subject. Was this a deliberate move by the programmers to spare us additional COVID misery?

“The 2021 program really addressed the pandemic head on in a way that felt urgent — films like Nanfu Wang’s documentary ‘In the Same Breath’ and narrative features like ‘How It Ends,’” said programming head Kim Yutani via email.

“The creative beat this year is a bit different (as it always is). We see artists reflecting on the global collective experiences of the past few years and manifesting them in new ways. (This year’s) filmmakers are grappling with ideas of community and collective well-being, injustice, fear, loss and hope, all of which have been illuminated by the pandemic and which this class of filmmakers make sense of with an incredible amount of creativity and innovative craftsmanship.”

Sundance 2022 is just a click away, with qualifiers:

Canadians and other movie lovers outside the United States will once again be able to participate in a virtual version of Sundance, although access to most of the features remains geo-blocked as U.S. only due to copyright restrictions and piracy fears.

Sundance 2022 offers a $50 (U.S.) Explorer Pass, which allows people around the world to view the immersive projects of the New Frontier program (including the NFB’s “This Is Not a Ceremony” VR work), the serialized stories in the Indie Episodic program and a selection of 28 film from the Short Film program, among them the Canadian contender “Bump.”

The Explorer Pass costs twice as much as last year, but there are now considerably more films available with it. Sundance also has a bonus anybody can take advantage of: free global access to its online talks and events. See for details.

(This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star)


"Fire of Love," a Canada/U.S. documentary about French scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft, a married couple whose unfettered love of volcanoes led to stunning discoveries and images but also tragedy. It's premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)


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