That’s a Wrap – Highlights from the Sundance Festival 2020

Executive Director of the Sundance Institute Keri Putnam and Board Chair Pat Mitchell

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 7th, 2020.

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival has officially ended, with over a hundred films screened for thousands of avid film goers who braved snow, wind, and traffic to take in the best of this year’s independent film scene. For myself, this year’s festival was a whirlwind of 22 films, panels, parties, and so much more. In short, it was a fantastic year for Sundance, and a wonderful send off for Festival Director John Cooper, who after 11 years at the helm, is retiring from his position. In a beautifully staged passing of the baton, it was announced at Saturday’s Awards Ceremony that the incomparable Tabitha Jackson will assume the mantle of Festival Director, ensuring that the Sundance Festival will be in great hands.

I fully recognize what a privilege it is to be completely immersed in the work of independent storytellers for 10 days. And while it certainly is a luxury, it also felt urgent, important, and deeply relevant to the work that I do in the world as a donor, investor, non-profit board member, advisor, and consultant. Many of the projects at this year’s festival took years to make, and whether they were fiction or non-fiction, each offered powerful commentaries on urgent issues. I laughed, I cried…well mostly I cried. In the nine years that I have been attending Sundance, this is the one where I cried the most. I cried in despair, I cried because of the courage I witnessed, I cried because of the talent displayed, I just…cried. Some of the featured subject matters include gun violence (Us Kids), incarceration (The Painter and The Thief), memory loss and dementia, (The Mole Agent, The Father, Falling), living with disabilities (Crip Camp), human rights (The Dissident, Crip Camp, Us Kids, On The Record, I Bring You With Me), trauma and sexual assault (Us Kids, Wander Darkly, Promising Young Woman, On the Record)… just to name a few.

For those who may not know anything about film festivals, the Sundance Film Festival is the premiere festival in the United States, and arguably the world, for independent filmmaking. It truly gets the best of the best, and being selected for Sundance, let alone having a film take home an award, is likely to be a career defining moment for these filmmakers. Making films, making art, is their career, and for most people in this industry, it is a challenging one. There are few guarantees, the work is often project to project, and yet these filmmakers persevere because they are artists and storytellers, and the passion they have for their stories is palpable. This is especially true when you have them on stage, responding to an audience when their work is seen for the FIRST TIME. It is magical.

Take a second and imagine the world without visual storytellers. Take another second and think of your favorite film of all time, in fact, think of two: fiction and non-fiction. If you want add them to the comment section below. I hope you agree that film is indeed an incredibly powerful medium that can, and often does, have the power to change the world.

So here is what I saw at the festival. The journey of a film may begin at a festival, but it is you, as a viewer, who can now follow and champion the work.

Listed in the order I saw them…

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Crip Camp – This documentary was selected as the opening night film, and is a wonderful example of the type of advocacy films that Sundance has championed for decades. The story focuses on a summer camp in the 1960s that was run for disabled children, many of whom went on to become prominent activists for the rights of disabled people. It is an incredible example of the power of telling your own story, and a huge thank you goes out to co-Director Jim LeBrecht (photo) who was both featured in the film and co-directed it. I left feeling inspired and emboldened by the subjects’ tenacity and courage, and I certainly left with a deeper understanding of the issues that impact millions of people around the world. It would seem that others agreed, because Crip Camp went on to win the Audience Award for US Documentary. This incredible film will be available to stream on Netflix later this year.

Miss Americana – My first full day of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival started with the new Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift, and regardless of how you feel about the singer/songwriter, it was an incredibly engaging film. I myself am a Taylor fan, and it was powerful to watch Swift’s transformation from “good girl” to speaking her mind on politics, and in particular, on the issues that suddenly hit a lot closer to home in the wake of the sexual assault trial she endured in 2017. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think about the Gloria Steinem film that would be debuting a couple of days later, and how Miss Americana gave us a first hand look at a different type of activist. In today’s world, celebrities have ever larger platforms, and increasingly, they are using them to champion for the issues they believe in and support. This film can be streamed on Netflix now. Dir: Lana Wilson.

Aggie – Day 1 continued with another documentary that once again focused on women using their power and privilege to enact social change. In this case, Aggie centers around Agnes Gund, who in 2017 sold Roy Lichtenstein’s painting, Masterpiece, for $165 million to start a fund promoting criminal justice reform. She was inspired to do so by The 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary film chronicling the impact of the 13th amendment on African Americans with regards to the American justice system. Hopefully others will see this film and be inspired to do the same. Dir: Catherine Gund.

Zola – What can I say about Zola except that it was one wild and crazy ride. When two women from different backgrounds bond over pole dancing, they take off on the road trip of a lifetime to strike it rich in the strip clubs of Florida. I think this might be the first time a film was born out of a series of tweets and a Reddit subthread, but as the media landscape continues to dramatically evolve, I’m sure it won’t be the last. Zola will be released later this summer by A24. Dir: Janicza Bravo.

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The Mole Agent – Not all documentaries are doom and gloom, as The Mole Agent will attest. This delightful film follows an 83 year old Chilean man as he infiltrates a retirement home to determine if its residents are being abused by the staff. I don’t want to give the ending away, but let’s just say I came out of this film with a great big smile on my face. And speaking about faces, look at the face of the mole. He could not travel to the United States from Chile, because as he said, he does not like to fly. Dir: Maite Alberdi.

On the Record – This is Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s third film tackling sexual assault after The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, and this time they are taking on the recording industry, in particular the rape allegations against Russell Simons. This film premiered under a storm of controversy due to the last minute withdrawal of Oprah Winfrey as producer and backer, which was probably why the atmosphere at the premiere was so electric. Personally, I think this film is Ziering and Dick’s best film to date, and thankfully it was picked up by HBO Max, meaning audiences will have a chance to see this incredible film later this year when the streaming service debuts. This is a story about black women’s voices in the #MeToo era, voices that so far have not been given nearly as much weight as others in the conversations surrounding sexual harassment and assault. It is far past the time to change that. I had the opportunity to meet the survivors featured in the film, along with Kimberly Crenshaw who is also in the film, and to all of them I say THANK YOU. Truly, I could write a whole post about the film, the Q & A that followed the film, and the courage it takes to come forth with your truth against powerful men, but that will be for another day.

The Glorias – Full disclosure, Gloria Steinem has been a beloved friend of mine for years, so to say that I was excited for her story to finally hit the big screen would be an understatement to say the least. Directed by Julie Taymor, The Glorias is an ambitious undertaking, chronicling Gloria’s life from childhood through to present day. Gloria herself even made a cameo at the end of the film on a bus full of women heading to the historic women’s marches of 2017. Gloria will always be the first person to deflect attention away from herself and to give credit to others instead, but I for one am happy that her story is finally being told and that credit is being given for her many, many, many accomplishments. Gloria not only attended the premiere screening, but also spoke at a number of events throughout the opening weekend. The picture below was taken in the midst of my Wonder Woman collection, which was actually partially inspired by Gloria. The second issue of MS Magazine had Wonder Woman on its cover (yes I have it ), and again, longer story, but she is indeed a WONDER WOMAN (and 85 years young!)

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Wendy – Benh Zeitlin made a splash with his first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and this year he was back with his follow up, Wendy, a whimsical adaption of the Peter Pan story. Wendy will be released later this month by Fox Searchlight, so be sure to check it out.

The Nest – After his triumphant entry Martha Marcy May Marlene at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Sean Durkin was back with his latest effort, The Nest, featuring fantastic performances by lead actors Jude Law and Carrie Koon. The film follows a family as they move from America to England in the 1980s with disastrous results, and is a powerful character study on isolation and relationship dynamics.

The Dissident – The security around this film was intense, but you can see why once you get to the end of The Dissident. This documentary chronicled the events surrounding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and how he risked everything in the name of freedom of speech. Included in the film is an audio recording of exactly what went on the day he went missing in the embassy, so it was not easy viewing at times. However, this is an important and necessary film for the times we live in, so hopefully this film will land a distribution deal soon. Director Bryan Fogel won the Academy Award in 2018 for Icarus. I think it’s very likely that he will be onstage again next year for this one.

Minari – This hauntingly beautiful film won both the Grand Jury Prize for US Dramatic as well as the Audience Award, and it’s easy to see why. Writer/Director Lee Isaac Chung has created a stunning portrait of an immigrant family’s journey in America, the many ways the American Dream is broken, and the courage it takes to overcome these challenges. Most of the film is in Korean with English subtitles, and the acting was absolutely exquisite. At a time when new Americans are so often portrayed in a negative light, this film is a beacon. Every single character will make you smile and break your heart, so hopefully this film will get picked up soon. Truly a must see.

Dick Johnson is Dead – “What if you could make your loved ones live forever?” Dick Johnson is Dead is director Kirsten Johnson’s delirious and desperate attempt to keep her aging father “alive”, and the result is this stunner of a film. I have seen a lot of documentaries, and this one was so original, so clever, so heartbreaking, and so memorable it was awe-inspiring. This film won a special jury award for innovation in non-fiction storytelling, so clearly I was not alone in this sentiment. Dick Johnson is Dead will be streaming on Netflix later this year.

The Father – Continuing the trend of stories about aging fathers, Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins shine in this film that chronicles the impact of dementia from the point of view of the patient itself. Definitely look out for Anthony Hopkins’ name to be in contention for next year’s Oscars race for his searing performance in this film. The Father was picked up by Song Pictures Classics. Dir: Florian Zeller.

Wander Darkly – Tara Miele’s latest film is a surreal take on a troubled relationship between two parents reckoning with trauma and loss. This was yet another film that featured terrific performances from its lead actors, Sienna Miller and Diego Luna, so definitely watch out for this one.

The Painter and the Thief – I absolutely loved this documentary film about the friendship that was forged between a notorious Norwegian art thief and the woman who offered to paint his portrait after he was released from prison. This is a deeply moving film about the power of redemption that everyone should see. Dir: Benjamin Ree.

Promising Young Woman – I’m not entirely sure how to describe this film but is one that I cannot stop thinking about. Is it a romcom for the #MeToo era? A female gaze revenge fantasy? One of the best films of the festival? Seriously, I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving too much away, but let’s just say that this film is required viewing in this day and age. Insightful, funny, horrifying, and superbly directed, this is (hopefully) the start of a brilliant career for writer/director Emerald Fennell. And speaking of brilliant, Carey Mulligan gives another career best performance after breaking out at Sundance over a decade ago with Bad Education.

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Radha Blank

40 Year Old Version – Radha Blank wrote, directed, starred in, and wrote the soundtrack for this incredible film while in her 40s, and was honored with the award for directing at Saturday’s Awards Show. She was visibly moved at the podium and joyfully declared that there is no deadline on dreams, and I couldn’t agree more. This film is proof enough of that fact. Chronicling the journey of a 40 something wannabe playwright and rapper as she navigates the reality of being a woman of color in the entertainment industry over a certain age, this film is a triumph. (Pictured above with Sundance Board Chair Pat Mitchell at the Women’s Event)

Falling – The closing weekend premiere slot is always reserved for a buzzy film, and this year was no exception with the World Premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut. He also wrote, starred in, and composed the music for this film about a son’s reckoning with his elderly and acerbic father, so Friday night was truly Viggo’s night. However, after the credits rolled, he brought dozens of people onstage, including almost the entire cast, so it was a celebratory atmosphere all around. The film featured a standout performance by Lance Hendrickson as the father, so keep that name in mind once awards season rolls around next year. Lance and Anthony just may be battling it out.

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Kim Snyder and the “Kids”

Us Kids – In the wake of the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the student survivors decided that if the elected officials in the US weren’t going to tackle gun control, “us kids” were going to bring the issue to their doorstep. They founded Never Again MSD, an advocacy group for stricter and more common sense gun laws, and in just five weeks, organized the March for our Lives protest, that drew an estimated 2 million people across the United States, making it one of the largest protests in American history. Words can not describe how inspiring these young people are, and I found myself moved to tears multiple times throughout the film. Everyone should see this film, but more importantly, everyone should do everything in their power to ensure that the message of these “kids” is never forgotten. Dir: Kim Snyder.

Nine Days – I had to wait until the final day of the festival to see this film, as I missed an earlier screening that my son and husband attended. They both had come home saying that this film was one of the BEST films they had ever seen at Sundance, so needless to say, my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. Writer-director Edson Oda has created one of the most original, powerful, and awe-inspiring films I’ve seen in a long time, and I can only hope that this film is the beginning of a long and successful career for the first time feature filmmaker. A poetic mediation on what it means to be human, five candidates are interviewed over nine days for the privilege to be born. I won’t say anymore to preserve the viewing experience, but everyone should see this film, and I do mean everyone. Including Academy members, because if there is any justice, this film would be showered with Oscars come next spring.

I Carry You With Me – I closed out the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with another award winner. I Carry You With Me is a hauntingly beautiful love story between two Mexican men who have to survive social stigma, persecution, and country borders. This film was directed by Heidi Ewing, and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, so do not miss this incredible film when it is released later this year.

Finally, New Frontier was launched in 2007 as a way for artists, filmmakers, and storytellers to showcase the latest advances in media technology and innovation. Over the past 14 years, the works that have premiered at New Frontier represent the very cutting edge of storytelling technology. The past several years have been dominated by advancements in VR technology, and this year I was lucky enough to experience three of these films.

My Trip – This VR experience simulates a DMT trip, which is psychedelic drug. It was one wild ride. Lead Artist: Bjarne Melgaard.

Persuasion Machines – This VR experiences asks you to step into a living room that is completely wired with smart technology. Are you in control of the machines? Or is it the other way around? The piece was co-directed by Karim Amer as a companion piece to his film The Great Hack (currently streaming on Netflix – WATCH IT). VR is really hard to describe as it is so experiential, but this one left me shaking. The technology and storytelling was able to help viewers see how we are being mined for our data through devices. What we think are private spaces are becoming public trading floors, and the commodity is us. (pictured below)

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Still Here – This incredible immersive experience allows viewers to experience what it is like to re-enter society after being imprisoned for 15 years. What does it look like to return to a world that has continued on without you? Lead Artists: Zahra Rasool and Sarah Springer.

If you made it this far you must really love films. Therefore, if you want to dig deeper into the highlights of the festival, check out these links.

Vulture – The 12 Best Movies at Sundance

New York Times – At Sundance, a Glorious Diversity of Voices Breaks Through

Hollywood Reporter – Award Winners List

Indiewire – Critics Survey: Sundance 2020’s Best Movies According to 187 Film Journalists

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