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What's playing at Sundance?

Monday 11 January, 2021

Sundance Film Festival looks set to be a very different occasion this year. Instead of thousands of eager viewers, movers and shakers descending upon a snowy Park City, there will be seven days of film events on the festival online platform, from 28 Jan to 3 Feb

However the festival takes place, it's a fascinating start to every new year, as we often see Sundance's big hitters snapped up by UK distributors, if they don't have them already, and featuring again and again in film festivals through the year.

Across the US Documentary Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, Premieres, Next and short films strands, there are dozens of fascinating documentaries, which we'll be tracking through the festival and coming months.

Here is a selection to look out for:

LIFE IN A DAY 2020 / Kevin Macdonald / 90 mins 
Special SCREENINGS

A decade ago, Kevin Macdonald compiled his global snapshot of life in 2010 by gathering footage of people around the world on one specific day. A spectacular editing job made the original Life in a Day a rich and profound, as well as an entertaining experience.

It makes sense to revisit the concept ten years on, and what an extraordinary year to do it in. This time round the chosen day is July 25 2020 and the film is assembled from 15,000 hours of footage submitted from 192 countries.

Sundance says: "Social interaction was a tricky thing in 2020. In-person experiences were deemed unsafe, so we had to find new ways to gather and to stay connected. And this is exactly what Life in a Day 2020, an extraordinary collective effort, does: It unites individuals from around the world and creates a feeling of connectivity, a sense of belonging."
 

SABAYAHogir Hirori / 91 mins
World cinema documentary competition

Sabaya, described by Sundance as "a visceral, often petrifying journey that will keep you on the edge of your seat." digs into the horrifying reality of the thousands of Yazidi women abducted by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery, following a small group of volunteers risking great danger to find and free these women.

Director Hogir Hirori is familar with heart-in-your-mouth observational portraits of people taking great personal risk to protect others, having previously directed The Deminer in 2017.

 

PRESIDENT / Camilla Nielsson / 130 mins
World cinema documentary competition

Camila Nielsson follows up her excellent 2014 Democrats, a brilliantly crafted, close-up observation of the process of creating Zimbabwe's first democratic consitution, with a ring-side seat at the next stage of Zimbabwe's transition to democracy. 

Sundance says: "Nielsson once again brings viewers into the heart of the struggle for power in a nation closely monitored by the entire world."
 

IN THE SAME BREATH / Nanfu Wang / 95 mins
PREMIERES

We're always interested to see Nanfu Wang's fascinating documentaries, and have screened both Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation many times at Bertha DocHouse.

Sundance says her latest: "navigates the origin and spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan to the United States through a lens both personal and geopolitical in scale."

There have been several excellent, if distressing, documentaries that look at the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan so far, and we're sure there will be many more, but we're particularly keen to see Nanfu Wang's. A Chinese filmmaker now based in the US, she is exceptionally-placed to cover this journey, taking in the responses by leaders President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump and the tragedy for the citizens of each country. 

 

FLEEJonas Poher Rasmussen / 90 mins
World cinema documentary competition

Flee sounds interesting in both its subject-matter and in its unusual form. To maintain the anonymity of his subject, an Afghan refugee, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation to tell his extraordinary story.  

Sundance says: "The result is Flee, a film unbound by documentary constraints and swept up in an astonishing array of archive footage, ’80s pop music, and hand-drawn craft that brings audiences directly into the experience of a teen fleeing multiple countries." 
 

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson / 117 mins
US DOCUMENtary Competition

The idea of the multi-talented Questlove - 4x Grammy-winning drummer and frontman of The Roots; DJ; author; podcaster; and music journalist - directing a documentary is, frankly, exciting. Add to that, a fascinating and largely forgotten 1969 musical event overshadowed in popular culture by Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival, the footage of which has sat forgotten in a basement for 50 years... and Summer of Soul is a very intriguing film.

Sundance calls it: "a stunning unearthed treasure destined to become a pillar of American music and African American history."

 

Searchers / Pacho velez / 81 mins
NEXT 

Pacho Velez has taken us on unedited cable car rides in Nepal (Manakamana), an archive-only tour of the Reagan administration (The Reagan Show) and a travelogue of Berlin Wall pieces across the US (The American Sector). While his subject matter and his style of storytelling change from film to film, each one seems to be a perfectly crafted, thoughtful delight. 

This time round, he looks at people engaged in online dating. In New York. During a pandemic. Including himself. Sundance says: "Searchers is neither a thesis on online dating nor a grand statement on love and digital desire. Instead, Velez offers a bittersweet, utterly engaging take on the search for a human connection, which now feels more important than ever."
 

Misha and the WolvesSam Hobkinson / 90 mins
World cinema documentary competition

There is a mighty bunch of brilliant British documentary talent involved in this extremely intriguing film: Director Sam Hobkinson, producers Poppy Dixon and Al Morrow, as well as the teams of MetFilm Sales and BBC Storyville amongst many others.

It follows the story of Misha Misha Defonseca, whose Holocaust memoir took the world by storm, until her publisher discovered and revealed the truth behind her deception. And there's more to it than that... Sundance says: "Each peeled-back layer is met with surprise, prompting larger questions as the story twists and turns. Whom do we trust, and what motivates deception? Where does the line blur between victim and perpetrator?"  
 

WRITING WITH FIRE Rintu Thomas & Sushmit Ghosh / 92 mins
World cinema documentary competition

The feature debut from co-directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, we're looking forward to discovering Khabar Lahariya, India's only all-female news network. 

Sundance says: "Thanks to the directors’ intimate yet respectful lens, we witness these rural reporters’ awe-inspiring efforts to dismantle patriarchy and redefine traditional notions of power."