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Sundance Film Festival Wraps Up - A Window into Films Like Hives, Passing, Sabaya, Wild Indian

New Virtual Experience with New Frontier

Written by: Nikoleta Morales

Sundance Film Festival was a new, virtual and elevated experience this year that took place January 28 - February 3. The festival was able to reach thousands of people globally. Unlike previous years, it took place virtually and in a virtual reality social setting at the New Frontier section, especially designed to gather people across the globe.

“We also came to realize that, on a very basic level, New Frontier—and Sundance—is about community. The powerful sense of community that happens inside of a showcase of artistic expression. We are about bringing people together to watch films and immersive experiences that are created by artistic visionaries, and then making space for people to share and digest and celebrate and explore what they have seen. The serendipitous connections in this kind of environment are the magic of Sundance. That is the beating heart of the festival,” writes Shari Frillot.

Films that made an impact on the festival this year were Hives, Passing, CODA, Sabaya, Wild Indian, among many others. The festival featured a wide variety of talks and events with filmmakers and actors, such as Rita Moreno, Ed Helms, Eugenio Derbez, Rebecca Hall and others. The talks were around the future of filmmaking, the challenges of filmmaking in a pandemic, the increase in women filmmakers and leads, as well as other important topics.

“I think there’s been a real radical shift in the industry that I have personally felt where I’ve watched my female director friends get more work...Marlee and I were talking about whenever you start having these conversations, you have to make sure there is intersectionality, you have to make sure that those conversations about women include Deaf women and women with disabilities and creators with disabilities. How do we open up that conversation? I think, in all of the conversations we are having about diversity, disability has really stayed on the outside of that. I think that the more voices that are heard and the more representation we have on screen, the more our humanity as storytellers is expanded,” said Siân Heder on women representation in Hollywood

Despite the pandemic, numerous filmmakers were able to showcase their stories and films at the Sundance Film Festival. The predominance of movies were documentaries this year with a big presence of international features and documentary films. The wide range of topics included the industry impact of COVID- 19, film legends like Rita Moreno, the use of technology and dying nature, the human mind, refugees, war, Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, female empowerment, and many more.

Passing was Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut. It was a beautiful film done in black and white that explored the fine lines between gay and straight, black and white, right and wrong. Instead of labeling those themes, it portrayed them in a gray area where the audience is able to make a conclusion on their own. Wrapped in a beautiful soundtrack and brilliant acting by Tessa Thomspon and Ruth Negga, the film tells a beautiful story of love, friendship and female leads.

The film is an adaptation of the Harlem renaissance novella of the same name by Nella Larsen. It tells the story of two Black women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, each of whom can ‘pass’ as white but choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York.

“I read the book close to 15 years ago. Somebody passed me this book and said ‘I think you would find it meaningful.’ My mother’s from Detroit, she has three sisters, it was something in my family that was always known and not known that my grandfather passed for white and probably his parents were both African American and passed for white also. Because it was occasionally told to me in both open ways and evasive ways, I started to think about that in relation to me and how I look and how I present, this white passing person whose had all of the privileges and afforded that because of how I look, yet my proximity of my family with quite the other,” said Hall.

Wild Indian was directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, and Michael Greyeyes. The film is about two main Native American man and a murder, trauma, child abuse and neglect. It was made by a Native American filmmaker and stars Native American actors as leads. Even though I felt that the film could have portrayed the Native American characters in a better light and the storyline felt a bit underdeveloped, I loved the fact that the main characters were Native American and the story was told by a Native American. One theme that was touched in the film is one that gets little convergence from the news - the disappearance of Native American victims without a trace and without an investigation in a lot of cases. Hopefully, this film will make a shift and more light will be shed on that important topic.

“Writing the movie was a long journey. I started writing it when I was 24, 25. Now I am 31. I was thinking about a lot of generational things. I was writing about trauma and I think I added a historical piece years ago,” said …” People in reservations go missing all the time. It is a theme that has been going on,” said Corbine.

Sabaya was a documentary about living in violence and fear. The film is directed by Hogir Hirori and won the Sundance Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary. Guarded by Kurdish forces, 73,000 Daesh (ISIS) supporters are locked up in the Al-Hol Camp in northeastern Syria. Considered the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, it is situated amidst a volatile political and military reality where Daesh is still omnipresent. Five years ago, Daesh killed thousands of Yazidis in the Sinjar province of Iraq and abducted thousands of Yazidi women and girls to be held and sold as sex slaves – called Sabaya. In this film, Mahmud, Ziyad and other volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center rescue the Sabaya, who are still being held by Daesh in the camp. Continuously phoning, smoking and sometimes bickering, Mahmud and Ziyad systematically prepare their missions and know exactly who to look for, and where. Often accompanied by female infiltrators – some of them former Sabaya – and armed with nothing but an old mobile phone and a small gun, they travel to the camp in an inconspicuous van. Once there, mostly by night, they must act extremely quickly to avoid potential violence.

“Growing up as a Kurd in Northern Iraq my whole childhood was plagued by war and persecution because of my Kurdish ethnicity. My family lost everything and we constantly had to flee our homes. Life was full of hardships, but at least we had each other. I always wished I had a camera back then, to document the injustice my people were subjected to. Since then I have left the country and settled down in Sweden. But still, 20 years later, war, unrest and oppression prevail in my home country,” said Hirori.

One of the underlying themes that kept coming back in the three films, Fire in the Mountains, Hives and even The World to Come, was the one of the strong village women. It is a theme that we do not see often - the physically and mentally strong female who battles poverty, families and takes care of the house in her village, while making a change in her community. She is a fighter, a provider and a woman who has been put in hardship to make a change for her family and village. Some stories really resonate with people and with the good script, strong character and storyline, Hives won a few awards at Sundance for its topic, nature, directing and story. Hives, directed by Blerta Bassholli, won the directing, jury and audience awards. The director got emotional upon the acceptance of her award and thanked everyone for appreciating the story of Kosovo women.

In a tight-knit town in Kosovo, families struggle to make ends meet as they anxiously await news of husbands, fathers, and sons who were ripped away by the war. When Fahrije’s bees stop producing honey, she acquires her driver’s license and ventures into the city to sell homemade ajvar in a local grocery store. Fahrije’s ingenuity and ambition challenge the conservative townspeople, who are steadfast on traditional roles and patriarchal expectations. She disregards insults, gossip, and even physical attacks to empower a community of women to be self-reliant and independent in order to survive together.

Another great topic explored at Sundance was that of surrogate mothers and single fathers who want to have children on their own. The theme was explored at Together, Together directed by Nikole Beckwith, starring Ed Helms. “I read a ton of scripts all the time and sometimes the package is exciting but the part isn’t great but this was a script that just totally won me over in the first few pages and was so full of surprises throughout. For me as an actor a bit of a departure from the usual expectations people have of me. Grateful for Nicole for thinking outside the box and casting me in that way,” said Helms. The story is a personal story that Beckwith related with and wanted to share with the world.

The film that won four awards at Sundance was CODA, which focused on people with disabilities in an emotional and raw way about a hearing child in a deaf family. It was directed by Sian Heder and starred Emilia Jones and Eugenio Derbez.

Some notable short films were Souvenir, Souvenir and Doublespeak. Souvenir, Souvenir is a French short film by Bastien Dubois. The film relates Bastien’s multiple and unsuccessful attempts to initiate a dialogue with his grandfather using a combination of art styles to lay out a story of war trauma, family conflict, creative process and ultimately filial love. The film won a Sundance Jury award for a Short film. Doublespeak was about sexual assaults that often happen to women at the workplace but do not get the attention they deserve and how women deal with the issue. It is told in a truthful, raw and authentic way.

The highlight of the festival was the New Frontier section filled with virtual reality films and a space where filmmakers and audiences can get together in a virtual space and recreate the physical social way of Sundance. It featured sound, visuals and even games, as well as a virtual karaoke, virtual restaurant and more, while exploring themes of importance, such as Black Lives Matter, disability, spirituality, life and more.

“When it became clear that the global pandemic would require us to present New Frontier virtually, a first for our ambitious, bleeding edge, new media showcase, the first thing we did was to take the exhibition design we were installing in Park City, and tear it down entirely to its parts in an attempt to identify the beating heart of what New Frontier and the Sundance Film Festival is,” writes Frillot about the experience.

“I think that the future is open. I refuse to give up hope. I will not let anybody force me into that because I tell young kids all the time that I talk to is, ‘one thing that no-one can ever take from you is your light, so live in that light.’ Find who you are. It doesn’t have to happen right away. I’m 50, I’m still figuring it out. I’ll always be figuring it out. That’s my art… I will no longer let anyone write about my future,” said Hannah Bleacher.

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