Sundance 2021 — Part 1

When Steven Soderbergh picked up the first ever Audience Award for a narrative film at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1989, everything changed. Soderbergh’s film, sex, lies, and videotape, went on to be an arthouse sensation, and Sundance was suddenly the annual site of a perpetual showbiz gold rush. By the following year, Soderbergh already felt the first pangs of guilt.

“I’m a little concerned by what sex, lies might have wrought here,” Soderbergh said at the 1990 fest after watching film buyers prowl screenings, attuned to imagined commercial potential rather than artistry,

When Soderbergh offered that lament, I was in my first year of being a proper film critic, dispensing my precocious opinions weekly on the college radio station I called home. I would have loved to attend Sundance, a desire that persisted ever since, compounded by eventually having a good friend who regularly volunteered at it. So it was possible. I just never did it.

And then the world got knocked sideways by a global pandemic, sending most events built around convening people in close proximity into an improvised Plan B. That included the Sundance Film Festival, which went almost entirely virtually for the 2021 edition. Our household did our best to take advantage of the opportunity, packing a hearty slate of films into just a couple days.

Enough preface. Let’s commence the rundown.

Directed by Nanfu Wang, In the Same Breath is a documentary that assembles remarkable footage in tracing the emergence of COVID-19 in her native China. Wang interlaces personal experience in way that doesn’t feel intrusive, and offers a harsh, proper condemnation of the lies and propaganda the Chinese government employed, including the arrest of physicians who first raised alarms about the serious danger of this new coronavirus strain. Though the parallels to be found in U.S. bumbling are given their moments of earned ire, this film is undoubtedly and squarely aimed at the country where the troubles began. There’s one flourish of an imagined alternate path at the end that is staged in a way I find off-putting, but I understand the instinct. More than anything else, Wang wants the audience to know that the last year of death and sacrifice didn’t have to happen this way.

In 1969, in the weeks before, during, and after Woodstock, a similar festival concert was staged in Harlem, drawing a combined attendance of around three hundred thousand. It was almost entirely forgotten, hours of footage left to rot in a basement. Then it was turned over to Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove. He fashioned the footage into his feature directorial debut, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). What could’ve easily been nothing more than an impressive concert film is instead a riveting mix of vintage performance, admiring music history lesson, and a treatise on Black culture at an especially fraught and promising time. Thompson swings between concepts with astounding adeptness, creating a piece of art that’s like an ingenious DJ set transformed into cinema. A sequence that considers the cultural impact of the Moon landing, which took place during one of the concerts, is a feat of dynamic editing and sound mixing that exemplifies that bursting brilliance of the film’s construction.

A grim drama about the lasting repercussions of a gruesome childhood incident on two Native American cousins, Wild Indian has interesting elements that are too often overshadowed by the grinding mechanics of the story. Writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. doesn’t bring enough psychological insight to the story, leaving the characters seeming like pawns in the narrative rather than people dealing with the wounds left by the own experiences. Some of the performances are lacking, too, especially in the smaller roles. There is very nice acting from Chaske Spencer, as a man with a chunk missing from his soul because of the distant sin he he was drawn into a boy.

When director Jonas Poher Rasmussen discovered a school friend who was an Afghan refugee had a very different, and far more harrowing, life story than he was led to believe, the filmmaker wanted to use his skills as a documentarian to share it with the broader community. His creative challenges were to preserve his friend’s anonymity and visually depict incidents that weren’t preserved by any sort of camera. The solution is to use animation, making Rasmussen’s film, Flee, a descendent of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. The conceit works, giving Rasmussen’s documentary an intimacy and power it would have been otherwise unlikely to achieve. It is a story worth telling, and Rasmussen serves it well.

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