A Questlove-directed documentary about the other major music event of the summer of 1969 and documentaries about the creators of Sesame Street and the coronavirus pandemic in China are among the 72 feature films debuting at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Organizers on Tuesday unveiled a robust and diverse slate for the festival, which will be largely virtual because of the pandemic.
The festival will kick off on Jan. 28 with the premieres of Nanfu Wang’s documentary about propaganda and COVID-19 in China, “In the Same Breath,” and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” about the forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which celebrated Black music and culture and attracted more than 300,000 people.
“We’re starting the festival with a bang for sure,” said Kim Yutani, the festival’s director of programming. “We felt that was important to have something that just really just directly reflects what we have been through this past year.”
“In the Same Breath,” she said, is a “search for the truth. And it is a bold indictment of the response of leadership in China and the U.S.”
Questlove’s film uses never-before-seen footage that had been sitting in a basement for 50 years.
“It’s an incredible debut from a first-time director, a vitally important historical document and it’s a kind of reclaiming of history to reframe the present,” said Tabitha Jackson, the director of the festival. “But most important of all for us was just that it’s a stunning watch. It is joyful and vibrant and colorful and socially engaging and so beautifully crafted and put together.”
Opening night will also see the premiere of Sian Heder’s film “CODA,” about the hearing child of deaf parents co-starring Marlee Matlin.
“I think it’s going to be one of the big stories out of the festival this year,” Yutani said.
In addition to “CODA,” the U.S. Dramatic Competition section will feature films with Tiffany Haddish and Jerrod Carmichael (“On the Count of Three) and Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson who co-star in “Passing,” about two light-skinned Black women who choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York.
Based on a novella by Nella Larsen, “Passing” is the directorial debut of actor Rebecca Hall.
“The way that Rebecca has directed it feels utterly contemporary,” Jackson said. “It really speaks to this current moment.”
Robin Wright is also making her directorial debut with “Land,” about a search for meaning in the American wilderness after an “unfathomable event” starring herself and Demián Bichir.
There are high-profile documentaries about “The Joy Luck Club” author Amy Tan and EGOT-winning actor Rita Moreno. Yutani said that the Sesame Street documentary, “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street” is likely to be a crowd favorite. Edgar Wright has also directed a documentary about the pop rock duo Sparks.
And there are others that might not have the flashy celebrity subjects but are gems worth checking out. One, Jackson said, is “Writing With Fire” about India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women, who are breaking traditions and norms to tell the truth about what is happening to women in the country. Another is about the legal trailblazer Pauli Murray, who influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall from “RGB” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
As always, Sundance is a festival of discovery spotlighting new and emerging voices in film. More than half of the feature films this year are from first-time directors and across the 140 total projects, 50% were directed by one or more women and 51% by one or more artists of color.
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival was home to some of this year’s most acclaimed films, including “Promising Young Woman,” “Minari,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Boys State,” “Crip Camp” and “Kajillionaire.” It was also one of the only major festivals to happen before the pandemic hit.
“We were so lucky to be able to go when we did in January, just before the pandemic hit. Other festivals weren’t that lucky and many other filmmakers weren’t as lucky in getting their work buzzed about, written about and seen,” Jackson said. “We deeply feel the responsibility this year of doubling down on our commitment to emerging voices.”
Sundance founder Robert Redford said in a statement that under Jackson’s leadership, “We’ve forged a new collective vision: one that honors the spirit and tradition of these invigorating yearly gatherings in Utah, while making room for imaginative new possibilities in a new online format.”
The festival “going virtual” also opens up the experience to curious audiences who may not have had the time or money to make it out to Park City, which between lodging, food and passes can be an expensive endeavor.
“We all are so excited about the possibility of encountering people who’ve never been to the festival,” Jackson said. “Suddenly, people from around the country and around the world can be at Sundance for the first time, be part of that first audience who can talk about this work which will in some ways define the conversation around cinema in the 12 months afterwards.”
Tickets for the 2021 edition go on sale on Jan. 7.