Sundance, Reinvented

Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath is one of four Day One films at Sundance 2021

On the final day of last year’s Sundance, Tabitha Jackson was named the festival’s new director. Within weeks, as the pandemic went global, the realization set in that nothing was going to be the same for who knew how long. SXSW cancelled, then Cannes. Jackson and her team wondered whether or not they should even be thinking about staging a 2021 edition—but they didn’t wonder long. “If we believe in the role of artists, the independent voice, and community, then a film festival is not a bauble or a distraction or a frivolity,” she tells Jen Yamato in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s actually a necessary coming together, in whatever way is safe, to make sense of the moment.”

The team began building its online platform early on and then started contacting art-house cinemas all across the country. In short, the 2021 edition of Sundance, opening today, is a nationwide celebration of fresh talent. More than half of the seventy-two features in the program, down from the usual 120, come from first-time directors. One half of the films in the lineup have been directed by women, fifty-one percent by people of color, and fifteen percent by people who identify as LGBTQ.

Over the next seven days, films and talks will be beamed into homes, while live events are scheduled to take place in twenty-eight cities. “It all started last summer,” Holly Herrick, head of film and creative media at the Austin Film Society, tells the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker, “when they reached out to us and said, ‘Look, we’re trying to reimagine the festival.’” Today, the AFS will present a free conversation between Richard Linklater and Miss Juneteenth director Channing Godfrey Peoples.

Jackson assures Yamato that she and her team will carry on remaining as flexible and vigilant throughout the festival as they have been throughout the months leading up to it. “As we came through an uprising for racial justice, as we came through an assault on democracy in the last few weeks, and as we go through the inauguration, we’ll be watching with our hands on the levers to see what we can do,” she says.

Critics have been leafing through the program, taking notes, and writing about some of the films that they’re most looking forward to seeing. There’s surprisingly little overlap but a lot to get excited about in the lists from Ryland Aldrich (ScreenAnarchy), Nick Allen (, Jason Bailey (New York Times), David Fear (Rolling Stone), the Film Stage, Hammer to Nail, IndieWire (features and shorts), Benjamin Lee (Guardian), Lou Thomas (BFI), and Women and Hollywood.

Profiling Jackson for the New York Times, Nicole Sperling talks to Davis Guggenheim, the documentary filmmaker (An Inconvenient Truth) whose Concordia Studio is bringing three films to this year’s Sundance. “I like that it’s no longer just a festival for the few—the few people who could go, the few people who could get tickets,” says Davis. “It’s a brave new world, and she’s being brave.”

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