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Sundance goes virtual at the last minute but still promises top programme

The festival has gone online rather than cancel but still promises a program packed full of independent talent
The festival has gone online rather than cancel but still promises a program packed full of independent talent   -   Copyright  Rick Bowmer/AP
By Tim Gallagher  with AP

Despite a lack of cinephiles able to attend the famous Eccles Theatre in person, the Sundance Film Festival begins its 44th edition this week, and the world’s premier independent film festival is as hotly anticipated as ever.

This year Sundance is back online and armed with nine days of high-profile documentaries about everyone from Kanye West to Princess Diana. Meanwhile, buzzy first films from knowns and unknowns, virtual gatherings and filmmaker Q&As will all take place as part of the festival’s 2022 program.

Sundance had planned to return to the mountains this year, but two weeks before thousands were set to gather in Park City, Utah, organisers decided to pivot to virtual rather than cancelling or postponing, as many have done amid the omicron surge.

The experience of 2021 taught the programmers that not only could they run a successful festival online, but that films could still break through even when filmmakers, audiences, buyers, sellers and press weren't all in the same physical place.

Several films that premiered last year are in the awards conversation including " Summer of Soul'' and " Passing". This year Sundance also boasts a record acquisition after Apple TV+ paid $25 million for the heartwarming "CODA,” proving being virtual isn’t putting them out of the game.

This year’s program is as robust as ever, with dozens of conversation-starting films.

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Shawnee Benton Gibson, left, and Bruce McIntyre appear in "Aftershock" by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis LeeAP

Opening night selections Thursday include " Emergency," a darkly comedic look at issues like race and assault, as well as Eva Longoria's documentary " La Guerra Civil," about Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez's 1996 fight.

Longoria’s film highlights the questions of identity it raised for many Mexican Americans, "That fight really divided the Mexican community in the United States," the director says.

"It divided households."

Building hype for newcomers and old-timers alike

For some, it's a chance to get some buzz before release. The Kanye West docuseries " jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy" is debuting at the festival before the series hits Netflix on February 16.

Sundance will also play host to the premiere of W. Kamau Bell's "We Need to Talk About Cosby," which will be on Showtime, and the first part of " Phoenix Rising," about Evan Rachel Wood's journey to naming her alleged abuser, Marilyn Manson, before it's HBO launch.

Some have already made a splash at other festivals, like Audrey Diwan's "Happening", a French drama about a college student seeking an abortion in the 1960s which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

But most others are looking for the traditional spotlight and distribution Sundance can bring, priding itself as it does on being a discovery festival.

First-time filmmaker Abi Damaris Corbin is one director hoping for the jumpstart that Sundance gave people like Steven Soderbergh to Ryan Coogler.

Chris Witt/ AP
Actor John Boyega says he burst into tears on reading the script for "892" about an American veteran who holds up a bankChris Witt/ AP

Corbin’s film "892" is based on a story of a former Marine who holds up a bank and is one of the higher profile acquisition titles with John Boyega in the lead.

Boyega said he was in tears reading the script.

"I just thought this story needs to be told," said the actor.

In another hot title, "Watcher", Maika Monroe plays an American who has just relocated to Romania and begins to suspect she's being stalked.

Director Chloe Okuno's atmospheric thriller captures a familiar experience for women, "Sundance for a lot of independent filmmakers is the dream," says the director.

Others have eagerly awaited follow-ups, like Lena Dunham's "Sharp Stick" about a 20-something (Kristine Froseth) living in Los Angeles and Cooper Raiff's "Cha Cha Real Smooth".

Highlighting social issues through film

There are many debuts from known names too, like Tig Notaro who alongside spouse Stephanie Allynne directs "AM I OK?" about two best friends played by Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. Ramin Bahrani has the documentary "2nd Chance," a lively and incisive look at the man who invented the modern bulletproof vest.

Meanwhile, "Carol" screenwriter Phillys Nagy directs Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver in "Call Jane," one of two films at the festival about the Jane Collective, an underground group in Chicago that carried out abortions in the early 1970s.

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"Normal People" star Daisy Edgar-Jones appears in "Fresh" which has already been nought by HuluAP

As always, pressing social issues are explored in myriad ways and can pop up in genre fare, like Krystin Ver Linden's "Alice," starring Keke Palmer as an enslaved woman who discovers it's actually 1973, and more straightforward documentaries, like Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee's "Aftershock," a moving look at the maternal health crisis and its disproportionate impact on Black women.

Some deals are already underway: Searchlight Pictures acquired " Fresh," a dating thriller starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan, to stream on Hulu starting March 4.

Still, the virtual festival is a bittersweet moment for many, especially filmmakers early in their careers who looked forward to the energy of an in-person gathering.

"I think I was numb to it at first. Over the last few days, I started to feel it a little bit more," Okuno said. "Obviously, it's very disappointing for any filmmaker. At the same time, I completely understand."