By Désirée I. Guzzetta
Originally planned as a hybrid online/in-person event, Sundance 2022 wound up pivoting to online only, with only the satellite screenings in other cities doing in-person events, because of a spike in coronavirus cases. While the caution was appreciated, the last-minute switch to the virtual world did have some minor hiccups for some, including difficulty pulling up Q&A sessions after live premieres, and avatars in the New Frontier “Spaceship” unable to move around and/or interact with others. Most of those, fortunately, were just blips on an otherwise fun experience high above the digital Earth.
According to the Sundance Institute, 14,849 submissions for the Sundance Festival were received, but only 84 feature films and 59 short films made the cut. Sundance provides a breakdown of the number of features directed by women, non-binary individuals, people of color, and LGBTQ+ on their website by all features and by the various competitions. The inclusive nature of Sundance means lots of opportunities for diversity. For example, in the U.S. Documentary Competition, 77% of the filmmakers identify as women, and in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, 50% of the filmmakers identify as people of color. It was refreshing getting to experience so many new voices in cinema telling their own stories.
My own Sundance stats include taking in 28 movies, including the opening night premiere of Sam Green’s 32 Sounds in the Cinema House virtual movie theater. “Housed” on the Spaceship, the online area where all the New Frontier offerings could be found, the Cinema House had virtual chairs in front of a virtual screen where special events were presented to crowds of avatars. Viewers could show applause by hitting the spacebar on their keyboards, which made the user’s avatar jump up and down. Those viewing via VR headsets could wave their avatar’s arms around. It could be a little chaotic at times as everyone figured out what their avatars could do, but it added to the digital ambiance of the events. The funniest part was people whose avatars got stuck on the Cinema House stage, as it’s not like you could really yell “Down in front!” and have anyone hear you. Of course, the Cinema House included a way to make the virtual screen full-screen so you didn’t have to see the avatars sitting in front of you.
I didn’t get as many shorts in as I wanted this year, but I did see 17 in their entirety (12 live-action and five animated), plus a sampling of nine I wasn’t able to finish because I ran out of time. I also saw several live Q&As and a few Q&A replays, but only got to a few New Frontier events. One was “Gondwana,” a 24-hour stream that could be accessed via VR or on the website in a livestream and which was very moving and enlightening, and the final celebratory “Donna Summer Dance Party” in the Cinema House, where avatars could “dance” and mingle. A video chat feature on the avatars allowed you to speak with other attendees in virtual bars and lounges, though the dance party wasn’t the best place for that because so many avatars were jumping around and the music was loud–just like a real dance hall. Several films included “film parties” in lounges in the Spaceship so that attendees could discuss what they just saw in a more intimate setting. Unfortunately, I don’t own a VR headset yet, so I missed out on a lot of the New Frontier offerings. I know what I’m getting myself for my birthday, though!
My favorite place to play around in the Spaceship when not watching films was the “IDFA DocLab at Sundance,” which had a video store theme this year and didn’t require any special VR gear. It was a nice way to relax, discuss the films screened, and shave a big hairy wall with friends. It was also a space where budding filmmakers could connect with industry folk. In this current era of isolation, it was great being able to “hang out” with people safely.
In addition to 32 Sounds, I saw several horror films, a few documentaries, and some dramatic fare. My favorite feature watches include FRESH, After Yang, The Territory, and Navalny, which was a late addition to the festival and won two Audience awards (and for good reason, as it’s absolutely electric). I’ll have capsule reviews coming soon, so watch this space. But for mingling in the digital world, the New Frontier, despite some glitches (probably based on the late pivot to all-online possibly causing Sundance being unable to have the same behind-the-scenes folks working on the platform as last year), is highly recommended. I hope it comes back again next year regardless of the festival’s setting.