Dr Andy Moore (@andymoore_), long-term Friend of the Picture House and Lecturer in Film, Exhibition and Curation at the University of Edinburgh, has just got back from a digital visit to Sundance Film Festival. Always one to champion the treasures which can be found when you have the opportunity to explore the festival circuit, Andy has been kind enough to write up a blog post for us on some of the films at this years’ festival which he’s most excited about.
One of the most exciting things about the film festival experience is the joy of the new discovery – that rush when you catch something really distinctive and original that feels fresh and new. For the Sundance Film Festival (which took place almost entirely online this year) this emphasis on discovery – and on distinctive, original voices – is baked into the very DNA of the festival itself.
Sundance, and its associated programs of filmmaking and talent development labs, has helped launch the careers of some of the most exciting and influential independent filmmakers of the past 30 years – from the Coen Brothers to Paul Thomas Anderson. And in championing fresh new voices, the festival has played host to the extraordinary debut features of filmmakers as varied as Marielle Heller, Kelly Reichardt, Ryan Coogler and Boots Riley (all unique voices whose work has graced the programme of the Hyde Park Picture House over the years).
Although audiences participating in this year’s fest swapped the freezing streets of Park City, Utah (and their snow boots and parkas) for slippers, dressing gowns and the comfort of their own living rooms, 2021’s virtual edition was no different on the new voices front: 39 out of the 73 features screening at this year’s festival were directorial debuts, providing plenty of opportunities to experience the joyful rush of discovery.
For me the first film to provide that dopamine hit was Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The directorial debut from musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a pure unadulterated joy, and a discovery in more ways than one. The film, which picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, unearths astonishing footage (untouched and unseen for 50 years) of a series of summer concerts that took place in Harlem in 1969. Known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts featured an array of incredible performances from legendary black musicians including Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Thompson’s film skilfully weaves this extraordinary concert footage together with contemporary interviews to tell a vital, generation re-defining and life-affirming story about African American history, music, culture and fashion.
Another film that shines a light on history in a way that forces you to look at the present with fresh eyes is Shaka King’s electrifying sophomore feature, Judas and the Black Messiah. Starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in two of the best performances of the festival, the film tells the story of Black Panther Party chairman and revolutionary activist Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), and the FBI informant (Stanfield) who infiltrated the party and ultimately provided the information that led to Hampton’s assassination at the hands of the Chicago police.
Elsewhere, the devastating Mass also reckoned with America’s deeply troubled history of violence – this time featuring a quartet of immensely powerful performances. The film stars Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the parents of a child killed in a school shooting, and Reed Birney and Ann Dowd as the parents of the killer. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a church meeting room, it’s a knotty, complex and emotionally wrenching chamber piece, and an extraordinary accomplishment for actor and first-time director-screenwriter Fran Kranz.
Kranz, who is perhaps best known for his role in Cabin in the Woods, was not the only actor premiering their directorial debut at this year’s fest. Two of the most hotly anticipated titles were Rebecca Hall’s Passingand Robin Wright’s Land. Hall’s film is a striking and elegant black and white adaptation of Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel about two African American women who can both “pass” as white but have chosen to live on different sides of the colour line. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are characteristically brilliant as the two women, and the film plays out like a psychological thriller – simmering with explosive tension – after a chance encounter between the pair threatens to unravel both of their lives. Land meanwhile, demonstrates that Wright is as accomplished a filmmaker as she is an actress. She plays Edee, a woman who retreats to an isolated cabin in the Rocky Mountains in the wake of a tragic event. Playing out a bit like a gender-flipped All Is Lost,much of the film’s first half is wordless – as Edee struggles bravely against the elements – but when Demián Bichir’s taciturn but charming Miguel arrives, he slowly begins to coax her back into the world. Wright is the big draw here, but so too are the stunning and gorgeously lensed landscapes of Alberta, Canada.
Two more very different, but equally striking, female led debuts came in the form of Welsh director and screenwriter Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor and writer-director Blerta Basholli’s Hive. Bailey-Bond’s film takes place in the UK in the 1980s, at the height of the public hysteria around the so-called “video nasties” films. The film stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a conscientious film censor, meticulously working to ensure the public are “protected” from the most harmful gore-filled and violent works submitted for release in the UK. When one of the films she’s reviewing features a scene disturbingly close to a traumatic childhood memory, Enid finds herself falling down a rabbit hole of shifting realities. Like last year’s Saint Maud, Censor is a brilliantly inventive and distinctively British psychological horror, and a gloriously atmospheric love letter to a defining moment in our nation’s cinema history.
Hive on the other hand, is grounded in real world horrors. But the film’s true story of a Kosovan woman who, in the wake of her husband’s disappearance during the war, brings together a community of similarly bereaved women to forge their independence in the face of a deeply conservative and patriarchal community is ultimately an uplifting one. Working together, the women begin to produce and sell a local delicacy made of sweet peppers. The film is anchored by a terrific performance from Yllka Gashi, who displays a fractured but quietly indomitable streak in this moving drama of resilience and female solidarity. Hive deservedly swept up the three main prizes in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, taking home the Audience Award, Grand Jury Prize and Directing Award.
Finally, it just wouldn’t be Sundance without the buzzy feel-good family centred comedy-drama with the slight edge. This year’s Little Miss Sunshine/The Farewell was the heart-warming and hilarious CODA, which took home a host of awards – including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the US Dramatic competition. A remake of the French comedy La Famille Bélier, CODA stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf family – whose fishing business relies on her hearing and translation abilities in order to function. When an inspirational music teacher discovers Ruby’s passion and talent for singing, she finds herself forced to make a choice between her responsibilities to her family and her dreams and ambitions. It’s a well-worn formula, but the hilarious cast (including deaf actors Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s sex-crazed and brilliantly vulgar parents) and the quality of the writing elevate it well beyond its slightly by-the-numbers plot.