Sundance 2021: Totally Virtual, but Still Kicking

With opening night documentaries–and screening shut-outs–Sundance is as vital and aggravating as ever

Maybe it’s more of a limp than a dance, but Robert Redford’s storied Sundance Film Festival is still on its feet. And if Thursday’s virtual opening night is any indication, the 2021 edition of Sundance—with socially distanced screenings through a specially designed website—feels as vital as ever.

Longtime festgoers’ muscle memory might be twitching this time of year, since Sundance’s arduous logistics—the freezing cold, the high altitudes, the scattered venues and shuttle buses and overpriced condo rentals—are blessedly absent from the equation. Then again, some adversity remains: a few badge holders last night were getting shut out of screenings, just like in the Before Times. Why preserve that? To create urgency and buzz, we’re told. Whoopie. What’s a film festival without a little aggravation and disappointment?

That said, virtual film festivals do need to create at least some friction to fend off all those at-home creature-comfort temptations. Time to stop binging on Bridgerton and focus on difficult but rewarding movies like Flee, an animated Danish documentary about a child refugee escaping Afghanistan in the 1980s!

Or, in the case of the selections that kicked off Sundance, time for Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Wang’s COVID-19 indictment tackles ripped-from-the-pages headlines—and might even be making news of its own. Questlove’s black-music exegesis unearths electric concert footage that’s been buried for half a century—and makes it feel as relevant as ever. Both are remarkably urgent, beautifully assembled, and absolutely indelible.

COVID Disinformation
‘In The Same Breath,’ courtesy of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

“I’m afraid to talk!” nervously giggles a hospitalized Wuhan patient. “We don’t have freedom of speech.” Wang’s galvanic documentary chronicles Year One of the Coronavirus in both China and the United States, exposing the deadly impact of politicized disinformation. She starts off with a Chinese news report on January 1st that the government punished eight people for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia. “Nobody can get away with spreading rumors online,” drone newscasters robotically. Wang even shows a grid of 9 different state broadcasts all repeating that same line. China insists on only positive coverage, and floods national TV with a slew of propaganda programming.

Based in New York and unable to travel back to China, the director hires cameramen to go to the hospitals and film as much material as possible. One hitch: Life in China has so conditioned them to film only happy news that whenever someone tells a damning piece of truth, the cameras slowly pan away and turn off. Wang soon breaks them of the habit, and the personal testimonials are devastating. “They put me in the death ward,” says one old man with a heart condition who had twice tested negative for the virus—and yet was still crammed in with COVID patients. An EMT driver tells a stressed family member that their sick mom, already on a gurney, needs to go back home because there’s no room at the hospital. “We can’t leave her in the ambulance forever,” he says impatiently.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the Trump administration is spinning lies upon lies about how there’s nothing to worry about. Hospitals fire doctors and nurses for speaking out. The MAGA base, whipped up to ignore the virus, rages against all the restrictions. No one can agree on any information, because no one is willing to agree on the facts. And Xi Jingping seizes the day to tout how his autocracy is clearly the superior political choice in the face of democracy’s weaknesses. “It’s a testament to the failure of their system,” an apparatchik says, chiding America. Wang’s portrait is a clarion call for transparency in the face of an international crisis.

Summer of Soul
Sundance
‘Summer of Soul,’ directed by Questlove, one of two opening night films for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Questlove’s Summer of Soul is just as damning in its own right. For six consecutive Sunday afternoons in the summer of 1969, The Harlem Cultural Festival brought an all-star lineup of powerhouse musical acts to Mount Morris Park, in the northern tip of Manhattan. Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more played in front of a collective audience of 300,000—with free admission to all. Camera crews captured the musical delirium on videotape, then promptly shelved the hours and hours of footage due to lack of commercial interest. Woodstock happened that summer, too, 100 miles upstate, and its wildly successful legacy—multi-disc album, split-screen concert film—all but guaranteed that the Harlem Festival, retronymically dubbed the Black Woodstock, would fall into obscurity.

Summer of Soul is a much-needed resurrection. Intercut with personal testimonials and ethnographic reflections, Questlove’s affectionate look-back is a boogie wonderland of cultural revelation. Funk, rock, blues, Afro-Cuban jazz, gospel—they all got their spotlight during the concert series, and the film makes sure to give them concurrent historical context that’s as rich as the performances. Questlove introduced the Sundance premiere in a quick Zoom Q&A and talked about how he sees himself as a storyteller. It’s a default line that most filmmakers trot out. But in Summer of Soul, he earns that moniker. The stories people tell him, full of revelations, frustrations,  alienation, and cultural pride, make Summer of Soul truly sing in so many ways.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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