This year’s Sundance Film Festival adapted to the pandemic with finesse, rolling out an online slate that included 26 feature-length documentaries that could be streamed on a screen of your choice: a phone, laptop, even your living room TV via Chromecast, AirPlay or Wifi. A few satellite screenings around the United States gave cinephiles the opportunity to gather in person (largely outdoors). Most Sundance attendees interfaced online; virtual parties were a surprise hit of this year’s festival. Could networking as an avatar in a simulated karaoke bar be a harbinger of the future? More on that later. First, let’s get to two festival award-winning docs, Writing with Fire and Flee.
Writing with Fire
Premiering in the World Cinema Documentary section was Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s debut feature, Writing with Fire, which tells the story of Khabar Lahariya — translated as «News Wave» — India’s only female-run newspaper. A film with a subject like this could seem to tell itself; Women who speak truth to power in a media landscape dominated by men has, at its core, a compelling hook. And these are fearless Dalit women, oft-marginalised by Indian society. But what makes this film soar is the deft filmmaking. We meet the journalists 14 years into their media project (a project some thought would fail) and now they are at a critical juncture transitioning into the digital space. This means adapting to all that goes along with technology shifts such as navigating smartphones and YouTube. This «will they or won’t they adapt» question is an easy one to latch onto. And then there are the characters, the women we are rooting for, led by chief reporter Meera Devi.
Beyond the film’s structure choices — or because of them — its gravitas pierces through. We ride along with Devi and her colleagues as they courageously confront what needs to be confronted, from the injustices of India’s rape culture and the police who refuse to act on evidence to inequities such as access to electricity for remote villages.
The personal and the political are weaved in a way that is hinged at the core. So are the personal and the professional. The power dynamics at home between the women and husbands or fathers and those in the field are never far removed. India’s persistent caste system is also front and center. «This is how our society is structured,» says Devi, «but it is important to keep challenging the system.» She also gets specific: «In our region, being a journalist meant that you are an upper-caste man. A Dalit woman journalist was unthinkable.»
Writing with Fire was part of a trend I noticed this year: films with two directors. I was curious how Ghosh and Rhintu work together creatively. What’s it like to collaborate on vision? Ghosh tells me he and Rhintu intuitively understand each other’s creative approach and language because they’ve been making films together for over a decade. With Writing with Fire, their vision was in sync, he says, but they approached directing from different perspectives. «I look at the larger picture, work everything towards the overall vision,» explains Ghosh, «and Rintu’s strengths are in looking at the finer details, the threads that hold things together.»
«it is important to keep challenging the system.»
Premiering their film online was, of course, not the original plan. «I dreamt about bringing Writing With Fire to the iconic Egyptian theater and imagined what it would feel to be standing inside, watching the film play out on a big screen with the audience,» adds Rintu. «We went into the virtual festival with no clue about what to expect and I have to say Sundance re-imagined a festival for this new reality while keeping the essential ingredients that it so powerfully stands for — community and connections.» She and Ghosh were able to meet with filmmakers, take in the audience responses, and even attend their film’s afterparty at the New Frontier. Writing with Fire won two awards: the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary section and a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change.
Next up we have another festival winner, Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, which uses novel methods of filmmaking to tell a refugee story we’ve not seen before. As in Writing with Fire, the theme of «courage» is central to the film, but in Flee it is a different kind. Using hand-drawn animation and archival video footage, Ramussen offers up the space for a man named Amin to reveal a secret he’s kept close to his chest until now. Amin arrived in Denmark after fleeing from Afghanistan as an unaccompanied minor many years ago. Now, at 36, he is a successful academic. But his past haunts him and he’s ready to reveal his story for the first time to a close friend.
His close friend happens to be Rasmussen, who met Amin years ago after he first arrived. Sometimes when filmmakers interject themselves, it can feel superfluous, even distracting. It can even break the fourth wall in a way that works against emotional investment. In Flee, Rasmussen’s participation is critical. The strength of the film lies in Amin’s vulnerability. Rasmussen’s presence — and the trust that is necessary for him to feel safe enough to reveal past traumas — is critical to the story.
If you wonder whether an animated documentary can actually move you, give Flee a chance. I was affected viscerally, in a way that might also tug at your spirit. You are along for the journey with Amin and with his hopes, fears, and lived brutalities. The drawings — Kenneth Ladekjær is the animation director, Charlotte De La Gournerie the animation producer — are evocative. And it’s also the words we hear, the sound of Amin’s voice, and Rasmussan’s, that pulls you in. We bear witness to Amin’s trauma through him speaking up and out. We also bear witness, as observers, through Rasmussan’s listening. There is also a love story, but I will not give that away.
Rasmussen’s presence — and the trust that is necessary him to feel safe enough to reveal past traumas— is critical to the story.
Flee — which was was slated to premiere at Cannes last year — inspired a bidding war after its opening night Sundance premiere. Neon ultimately snagged North American rights (for what is reported to be around a 1-million-dollar US deal). Danish feature films and documentaries have had great runs in the last few years at Sundance. Doc winners include Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld in 2019 and Feras Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo in 2017. Flee continues this trend taking home the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section.
Now onto off-screen events—well, typically what we would call off-screen events—which this year were held very much in your screen. One reason we go to festivals is for the community, right? Sundance delivered an unexpected experience of community this year. It was a combination of several things done right: The live post-film Q & As, the ability to chat online with other festival attendees, the invitations to afterparties.
Afterparties? Yes, here’s where the festival shined. New Frontier — which in normal years is a physical space showcasing virtual reality and other innovative storytelling projects — was a virtual space this year. Using your computer browser, or a VR headset, you could create a digital avatar (easier than it might sound), and then enter the website/virtual space. Once inside, you could run around the space, meet up with friends to chat about your favorite movies, give a go at karaoke in a popular room created by IDFA DocLab, and more.
When we look at the attendance this year, another story of the festival emerges: its reach. The New Frontier space normally attracts about 2000 visitors; this year nearly 40,000 people attended. And how many people screened films online? Sundance estimates half a million people from over 120 countries. That’s over 2.5 times the attendance from last year.
What will stay and what will go from this year’s festival?
This feels like an appropriate year to close out my Sundance coverage with a comment I read online. Here’s Prof Trelawney of Cambridge, Massachusetts, talking about Sundance on the New York Times website. «I loved it. I was able to attend for the first time in years because it was virtual, and while a lot was lost from the real to the virtual, a lot was gained too, inc. the greater access to so many who otherwise wouldn’t be able to spend the time or money getting to Park City. Also, the innovations of avatars and online discussions that allowed us to connect with each other in new ways. If necessity is the mother of invention, then I think the artists and innovators who made Sundance happen virtually this year are an inspiration, lighting the way from darkness into a new potentially promising and exciting future…»
What of the future? What will stay and what will go from this year’s festival? Will streaming from your living room and attending virtual afterparties become a norm? To be determined. For now, you can go to Sundance’s YouTube channel and catch filmmaker panels and interviews that are uploaded there for the world to stream.