Sundance 2021: Programme preview

If the past year has taught cultural institutions the world over anything, it’s that the show can and must go on. The continuing Covid-19 pandemic means that the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will be – predominantly – a digital experience.

Save for a select few satellite screenings set up across the US within strict health guidelines, this year’s festival will be beamed directly into front rooms. The programming team of the Sundance Institute have, as always, curated an exceptional array of the best, boldest and brightest new cinema from around the world for the altered state of 2021’s first pre-eminent film festival. The huge feature and short films selection are exclusive to US audiences, but viewers elsewhere can tune in for the New Frontier and Indie Series, as well as Scottish director Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day 2020, a snapshot of life from across the world on 25 July 2020.

Macdonald’s film features as a standalone Special Screening, but elsewhere the documentary line-ups (split between the US and World competition strands) are exceptional. Maisie Crow’s At the Ready sees three Latinx teens in El Paso battle the personal, professional and political when considering a career in law enforcement in the Texan border town; Peter Nicks completes his trilogy of hard-hitting vérité docs looking at life in Oakland, CA, with Homeroom, which follows a group of high school seniors confronting the pandemic and police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery; and Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unveils long-lost footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which lay hidden in a basement for fifty years.

Highlights of the World Cinema Documentary Competition include four films from Scandinavia. Flee, an animation exploring the experience of an Afghan immigrant in director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Denmark; his compatriot Camilla Nielsson comes to Sundance with her film President, as opposition leader Nelson Chamisa challenges Emmerson Mnangagwa for the Zimbabwean presidency. From across the border in Sweden, Kristina Lindström’s The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is a retrospective of the life of Björn Andrésen, star of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. And in Hogir Hirori’s dangerous, daring Sabaya, we enter the Al-Hol camp in Syria where Yazidi women and girls are held as sex slaves by ISIS.

The same impressive variety can be found in the dramatic features: in CODA, premiering on the first day of the festival, a young woman juggles family loyalty and her passion for music; two friends stand-off in a high-stakes pact in Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three; Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with Passing, adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, in which two African-American women able to “pass” as white decide to live on different sides of the divide; and Wild Indian by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., in which two men share a lifelong deadly secret, is one of our most highly anticipated films on show at the festival. If foreign language projects from around the world are your go-to festival fare, then you are equally spoilt for choice.

One of a number of features by female filmmakers about the plight of women at Sundance 2021, writer-director Blerta Basholli brings her Kosovo-set debut Hive to Sundance for its world premiere; a rare Maltese Mediterranean jewel, Luzzu, tells the tale of a fisherman struggling with tradition and feeding his young family; and Baz Poonpiriya joint Hong-Kong/Thailand production One for the Road, is garnering a great deal of early interest, and tells of a return home and bucket list adventure for two old friends.

Cryptozoo and Son of Monarchs are high on our list in the Next strand, and Eight for Silver, How it Ends, Robin Wright’s directorial debut Land, Ben Wheatley’s latest In the Earth, and Wuhan-set coronavirus exposé In the Same Breath are must-sees from the incredible Premieres section. UK director Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor headlines the Midnight strand – which also includes Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix – and both Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings and Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come are Spotlights we’re definitely not going to miss. Last but not least, a much-anticipated late entry to the programme is Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, in which Daniel Kaluuya portrays Fred Hampton in this uncompromising 1960s period piece, pitting the Black Panthers against the FBI.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63