As the independent film industry evolves during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so too must the Sundance Film Festival. And following the success of 2021’s largely virtual edition — which reached the largest audience in its over 30-year history — the organizers have opted to merge online access with a traditional in-person event in Utah for 2022.
“This is a big complicated beast,” said Tabitha Jackson, heading into her second edition as festival director. “But the way we are thinking of it is how can we experiment to find out what the festival can be going forward. ... It's about taking the best of the in-person experience, which is mighty, and taking the best of the online experience and seeing what third thing arises from those.”
The festival, which will run from Jan. 20-30, released the bulk of its lineup on Thursday, including 82 feature films. That's up from last year but still below pre-pandemic numbers. Among the higher profile projects set to premiere are a new film from "Girls" creator Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler's documentary on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, two films tackling the topic of pre-Roe vs. Wade abortion access in the U.S. (one documentary and one narrative) and documentaries examining controversial entertainers Bill Cosby and Kanye West.
Also among the feature lineup are new films starring John Boyega, Regina Hall, Thandiwe Newton, Keke Palmer, Aubrey Plaza and Emma Thompson and documentaries about TikTok and Princess Diana.
While the 2021 festival included a number of films that directly grappled with the issue of the pandemic, for the 2022 event there is a subtler connection to the events that continue to upend basically everyone’s lives.
“A lot of the films we saw this year were made under what we know were challenging circumstances,” said Kim Yutani, the festival’s director of programming. “And I think that you can tell that in the work itself. I think you are seeing things that are addressing the very real issues that we've all experienced, around grief and loss, loneliness and isolation and also calling into question institutions and pushing back against them.”
After staging a traditional festival in the pre-shutdown times of January 2020, this year's Sundance went almost entirely virtual and allowed "attendees" to log in from all over the globe. Next month's relaunch of an in-person event based in Park City, Utah, will be the first held under COVID safety protocols. In-person attendees will be required to be fully vaccinated, wear masks during screenings and — if participating in panels, parties or other events — to show negative test results from within 48 hours.
Director Riley Stearns is among the filmmakers determined to attend the festival and experience his film's premiere. His sci-fi thriller "Dual," starring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul, focuses on a woman who has a clone made of herself after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. After she recovers she attempts to decommission the clone and is forced into a duel to the death.
“I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to be there,” said Stearns, noting that he plans to attend the festival for the entire time. “And I'm sure the people who are fans of the festival who are going to attend are feeling the same way; it's such a special opportunity and it's such a special place. I'm not worried in the slightest.”
Sundance 2021 notably unveiled the directing debuts of musician Questlove (“Summer of Soul”) and actor Rebecca Hall (“Passing”), whose films are both in the current awards season conversation. The 2022 lineup again sees many notable faces moving behind the camera.
In addition to Poehler's first documentary effort, "Lucy and Desi," Eva Longoria Bastón also directs her first documentary, “La Guerra Civil,” about the rivalry between boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez in the 1990s. And Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg makes his debut as writer-director with “When You Finish Saving the World,” starring Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard.
Dunham's “Sharp Stick” marks her first feature film as writer-director since her breakthrough “Tiny Furniture” in 2010. The story of a young woman in Los Angeles has an ensemble cast including Kristine Froseth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jon Bernthal, Taylour Paige, Scott Speedman and Dunham herself.
When Cooper Raiff won the grand jury prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2020 with his film “S—house,” there was no in-person event to attend due to the pandemic. His new film “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” starring Raiff and Dakota Johnson in the story of an aimless recent college graduate, premieres in Sundance's U.S. dramatic competition.
“I've still never been to a festival. So I'm excited for my first in-person festival experience,” said Raiff. “I hear seeing your movie in the theater is really fun. I'm really excited to hear the laughter. Hopefully there'll be some laughter.”
The prolific Johnson also headlines the premieres section entry “Am I OK?,” directed by Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro, alongside Sonoya Mizuno as two longtime friends who find their relationship thrown into disarray.
Notaro and Allynne have a long history with the festival, and Notaro was even a volunteer many years ago. The couple met while shooting the movie “In a World...,” which premiered at Sundance in 2013, and they returned with the Notaro-focused documentary “Tig” in 2015, in which Allynne also appeared.
“I have put in my time at Sundance on so many different levels, I really have,” said Notaro, who also hosted the festival’s awards ceremony in 2015. “For it to all build up to the film, ‘Am I OK?,’ that is so I think authentically inclusive ... it just makes so much sense and feels right. It's such a source of pride for me.”
While a selection of genre films are sprinkled throughout the festival's various sections, the genre-focused midnight section continues to endure. The section includes “Piggy,” Carlota Pereda’s highly anticipated expansion of her award-winning short film of the same name in which the bullies who torment a young girl are kidnapped by a mysterious stranger.
Pereda said that growing up in Spain, Sundance was the only festival she followed, going back to the groundbreaking “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 all the way up to “Zola” in 2020. While she prefers that people see her film in the communal atmosphere of a theater, she acknowledges the increased access of the virtual festival has its own benefits.
“Look, you want your movies to be seen. That's why you do it,” Pereda said. “With the short, people still write to me from Indonesia, from Gambia, from the United States, and you want to reach people and you want the film to find its public. You never know who is it going be. So this is a bigger chance for you to find the people that may love it.
“I love going to the theater. Obviously it is the best thing, that's why we do this, but I also used to watch a lot of movies on VHS,” said Pereda. “My cinema education came from watching things on a TV, so as long as people experience the love of film, I'm just happy whenever they do it or wherever they do it.”
Among the titles likely to generate news and conversation well beyond Park City are the documentaries “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” a look at the cultural impact of the disgraced comedian directed by W. Kamau Bell, and “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” which promises footage from 21 years in the life of Grammy-winning musician West directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah.
Meanwhile, with the abortion debate firmly in the headlines, two films examine an underground network of women in Chicago in the late 1960s and early ’70s helping to provide access to healthy and safe abortions: Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes's documentary “The Janes” and Phyllis Nagy's narrative “Call Jane,” featuring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver.
“Both are really incredible films that offer different perspectives,” said Yutani. “And together they do really create a very impactful conversation. And I think, especially side by side in a program, it really amplifies the conversation. And you'll see other films within our program that also contribute to that conversation and elevate it even more.”
Abortion rights is also the subject of the ’60s-set French drama "Happening," which won the top prize at September's Venice Film Festival and will play at Sundance in the spotlight section.
Of the announced films, 52% were directed by one or more filmmakers who identify as women, with 35% directed by one or more filmmakers who identify as people of color. The program was selected from more than 3,700 submitted feature films, which organizers say reflects the end of a process, lamenting that many decisions have already been made before those films even get to them.
“We're just in a very fortunate position to be able to receive the work that we get,” said Yutani. “Some of these projects we have been tracking for years, some of them have come through our feature film programs, our lab programs, so we've been aware of them through those means. But it is so much about the pipeline and we are at the end of it.
"By the time the work gets to us, we have little say in how things are made. And that's our job, to be able to program work that is so strong and made by the voices of outsiders or people who are not recognized in the mainstream. It's really a unique opportunity for us to be able to contribute to our culture and to be able to amplify those voices."
“It's still a disappointment to us that the submission figures for women, who as half the population should not be marginalized figures, are still around the 27, 28% mark,” added Jackson. “That's absolutely not where they should be. There's been so much work on it and yet still we are at that point.”
The festival heads also point out that over 42% of the directors are first-time feature filmmakers and only 20% of the films currently have distribution in place, highlighting Sundance's longtime reputation as a festival built on discovery. (The aforementioned "Passing" and "Summer of Soul" were among 2021's key acquisition titles, as well as Apple TV+ pickup "CODA.")
Attending Sundance in Park City inevitably involves being outside in snowy weather, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on crowded shuttle buses or waiting in lines in tents. The timing and the environment often mean many attendees return home sick from something or the other, which puts the health and safety of participants at the forefront of organizers’ minds for the 2022 event.
“Every piece of this festival is both a challenge and an opportunity,” said Jackson. “The challenge is yes, a history of incredibly full, sweaty parties with people sneezing on each other and passing all kinds of things. But we've now come through 18 months where we are wearing masks in a way we never culturally have done before. We are wary about touching people, touching things. We are obviously being responsible about how we serve food and when masks are on and when they're not and what the capacities of places are.
“I shouldn't say this, but there is a possible world in which people are healthier than they'd ever be at Sundance because of the habits that we've grown into as a population and also the measures we're putting in place at the festival,” said Jackson. “But it's flu season. And so I'd be very disappointed if someone sneezes and we get a headline that says Sundance is a super spreader.”
As Sundance 2022 prepares to combine the experimentation of 2021 with a larger-scale in-person event, both the festival and wider film communities will be watching to see what unfolds.
As Jackson said, “We're about to find out.”
The 2022 Sundance feature film lineup can be found at the official site.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.