Day 1: January 28, 2021
The festival has officially started! I kicked off my 2021 schedule with a documentary shorts program, and then in the evening I joined the premiere stream of CODA, one of the opening night selections.
For context, the festival organizers have set up two types of screenings. Each movie gets one premiere screening that consists of a three hour slot with a live Q&A afterwards; then, on a subsequent day, each film gets a second screening, which is a 24-hour on-demand window. The shorts programs are an exception to this model—the shorts programs have no premiere screenings but are available on-demand throughout the whole festival. (I love this idea, because it encourages people to try the shorts programs since they’re constantly available.)
First, I checked out the shorts on-demand screening format. I appreciated that the shorts on-demand stream included a programmer’s introduction, the Sundance introduction, and the category information card before the films started playing. After the shorts program concluded, a pre-recorded Q&A with the filmmakers followed as part of the stream (there was no need to click to another page to find the Q&A). Having all of this packaged together helped preserve that “screening” experience; I didn’t feel like I was watching a playlist of shorts on YouTube or something. Including the Q&A at the end of the stream, rather than putting it on a separate page, encouraged me to watch it and spend some time with the filmmakers. One big positive about the pre-recorded Q&A: the festival programmer moderating the discussion had very thoughtful questions that elicited interesting answers. The pre-recorded Q&A also ran a bit longer than an after-screening Q&A normally would, which allowed all of the filmmakers to speak for an equal amount of time. The Q&A consisted of a recorded Zoom call, so it didn’t feel overly polished or worked-on, but I found the quality of the discussion to be much higher than you’d get at a standard after-screening audience Q&A at an in-person festival.
I opted to watch the Documentary Shorts Program 1, which included the short films Tears Teacher, Up At Night, This Is The Way We Rise, Dear Philadelphia, Snowy, and The Rifleman. Snowy and The Rifleman were the standouts for me in this program. Snowy, the most playful of the films in the collection, is about the filmmaker’s family’s pet turtle, Snowy. Snowy lives in the basement, tended to mostly by the filmmaker’s dad. The short investigates the question of whether or not Snowy is happy. The Rifleman succinctly exposes the links between the modern NRA, resistance to gun control laws, and xenophobic violence at the U.S.-Mexico border. The film, composed entirely of archival footage and photographs, focuses on Harlon Carter (who is considered the father of the modern NRA) and his personal history.
My first premiere screening also went smoothly. Fifteen minutes before the screening begins, a virtual waiting-room opens up. You can click in to join the waiting room, and you’re taken to the screening landing page. This landing page functions as a virtual space; a countdown banner ticks down at the top of the page, the video player below that displays the pre-screening content (ads and music), there’s a live chat feed where everyone in the virtual screening room can say hi, and there’s a little tracker bar in the shape of a row of theater seats to show how full the screening is.* The chat, while a good idea in theory, quickly became unusable due to the number of people typing at once. I followed the feed for a few minutes before the messages started coming in too fast for me to read them. Mostly, it was people saying where they were tuning in from and adding their Twitter or Letterbxd handles for others to follow. I did notice, however, that festival programmers and staff were in the chat answering logistical questions, and useful announcements (like how to access the live Q&A after the film) popped up in the chat periodically. Overall, I liked the idea of the screening room page and appreciated the effort made to create a virtual space. The chat function could be tweaked to allow for actual conversation, but the flurry of comments reminded me, in their way, that this screening was a shared experience. I sort of liked the way that the crazy chat signaled the busyness and crowdedness of the virtual screening room.
Once the countdown clock got to zero, the screening started automatically. (Well, it should have. I had to refresh the page in my browser, but then it worked.) The premiere screening also included a programmer’s intro, the Sundance intro, and the category information card. After the film, there was a live Q&A, which was on a separate page. When I clicked through to the Q&A page, it looked similar to the virtual screening room page. The video player displayed the Q&A (a livestream via YouTube of a Zoom call with a programmer and the filmmakers), and below the player there was a space for audience members to submit questions. Although this Q&A was live and questions were being submitted in real time, the moderating programmer could smartly pick and choose between submitted questions; so, again, I felt that the Q&A in this format was much more interesting than the after-screening Q&As usually are.
CODA (directed by Siân Heder) turned out to be a pleasant opening night pick. The film, part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, is a classic Sundance crowd pleaser; I’d put it in top contention for the audience award at the end of the festival. The movie follows high schooler Ruby (a fantastic Emilia Jones in what should be a breakout role), the hearing daughter of two deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). Ruby helps her parents and her brother (Daniel Durant), who is also deaf, navigate their fishing business, often acting as an interpreter. But Ruby possesses a talent for singing, and as she realizes how good she is with the help of an interested teacher, she decides to apply for music school and think about leaving her family. The particulars of the movie, especially the way it portrays deafness and deaf culture with warmth and care, set the film somewhat apart from the countless other indie coming-of-age dramedies that have premiered at the festival in years past. Personally, I was delighted to see Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (such a stand out in 2016’s Sing Street) pop up in the film as Ruby’s love interest. He’s not given too much to do, but he is so charming anyway that I didn’t mind. (The second screening of CODA on January 30 has already sold out, but I’m willing to bet that this one will get distribution and a decent release.)
That’s a wrap for Day 1! Cheers to a good start to the festival; I’m looking forward to my first full day of movies tomorrow.
*Please note that “pre-screening content” is the term used by the festival staff in the chat. It’s weird and corporate sounding, I know.