Arts, Column

Taxali: Virtual Sundance Format Proves Cinema Still Resonates With Audiences

On Jan. 4, Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson announced that the 2022 festival would be completely virtual as a result of the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It was a disappointing turn of events that marked a second straight year of fully remote “festing,” as dedicated festival-goers say. 

Organized similarly to last year’s festival, the 2022 Sundance iteration was still an engaging and interactive experience from the comfort of my dorm. The festival is running from Jan. 20 to 30.

A typical day begins with a morning viewing of “How to Fest Daily,” a short video hosted by Jackson that contains brief interviews with filmmakers and announces what to look forward to during the day ahead. 

Almost all of the films at the festival are making their world premiere at Sundance. The buzz around which films will be successful is purely speculative, and the festival offers viewers the extraordinary opportunity to shape their own thoughts on the movies before critics and box office numbers can do it for them. 

The festival features more than 100 films. It limits access to 10 to 15 films each day to prevent piracy and keep discussion on social media centered on only a few films at a time. By purchasing a ticket, audiences have a 24-hour window to watch the film online after its initial premiere. 

The festival also provides filmed question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers and actors for attendees to watch. 

There are some perks to a virtual Sundance. Being at home allows viewers to watch films that they would likely miss if they had to decide between conflicting showtimes and navigate through Park City, Utah, where it’s normally held. With dozens of viewing options throughout all 10 days of the festival, critics and cinephiles can embrace the ability to watch four, five, or six films a day—all in the search for a film that emerges over others. 

Films such as Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Father, and Promising Young Woman all sparked chatter and garnered praise after their debuts at Sundance in 2020—eventually winning Academy Awards. In my opinion, it is likely that many films debuting this week will soon arrive in theaters, on streaming platforms, and at award shows in the next year.

As a busy college student, I only had the opportunity to watch two films at the festival this year, but both featured unique filmmaking visions and engaging storytelling. The films asserted that good cinema can still resonate outside of the traditional festival experience.

The first film was Nanny, a fearless debut from director Nikyatu Jusu that tells the story of a Senegalese immigrant named Aisha (Anna Diop) working as a nanny for a wealthy white family in Manhattan. The family neglects her, regularly forgetting to pay her the money she desperately needs to send to her 7-year-old child who is still living in Senegal. 

As a film about the American dream from both the perspective of an immigrant and a family with established wealth, Nanny asks important questions about the sacrifices that parents make for their children and that people make to chase the American dream. 

The film successfully keeps its audience captivated by leaving viewers constantly wondering what will happen to the characters, particularly through the vehicle of Aisha’s supernatural dreams. 

The film’s opening shot shows Aisha in bed with a large spider crawling on her face, and characters throughout the film mention Anansi, a spirit from West African folklore that often takes the shape of a spider. The elements of myth make it clear that Nanny is not simply a drama about social class, but it contains elements of the supernatural meant to comment on reality. 

Dazzling cinematography—including a color palette of blues and greens, well-composed underwater shots, and long shots that display particular characters’ emotions—entices the audience and establishes a balance between drama and fantasy.

The second screening I attended was for Jeen-Yuhs, a three-part documentary about the growth and prominence of Kanye West as an artist, fashion designer, and cultural icon. The film will come to Netflix in February. 

The documentary’s first installment premiered at Sundance and documents West before the release of his debut and Grammy-winning album The College Dropout. What’s most striking about seeing West before his stardom is his consistent forward thinking. In conversation, he regularly mentions his goals of being a successful rapper, and he consistently asserts that he knows he can achieve his goals. 

It is alluring to see someone both equally confident and naive about his future stardom before he faces it. The single episode hints that Jeen-Yuhs is worth the watch for this distinct perspective of a figure surrounded by controversy. 

Presented with a second year of virtual “festing,” there were still plenty of fantastic films to discuss and many opportunities for audiences to engage with others in a festival environment. Even with the disappointment of the abrupt switch to online, the excitement lies in how Sundance will continue to chug along. 

Whether remote or in-person, cinephiles can continue to rely on Sundance as a channel to access acclaimed independent cinema and broaden their film fandom. 

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

January 30, 2022