Day 3: January 30, 2021
Day three, and we’re still going strong. I’ve managed to increase the number of movies I can fit into my schedule day over day; today I watched five, and tomorrow I’ll be attempting six. I think my brain said, “Eight hours of sleep? During Sundance? Get outta here, watch more movies.” And I willingly complied, because I’m greedy.
Before I get into the film roundup, I have some notes on the chat function in the virtual premiere screening room. I had initially written off the chat function as unusable, but I’ve come to realize that this really depends on the film. The chats for the buzziest, busiest films do quickly become hard to follow and difficult to use for conversation; however, in the waiting rooms for some of the documentaries and smaller films, I’ve had some nice interactions in the chat with fellow festival-goers. As the festival has gone on and people have seen more films, the chat has also become a place for people to swap recommendations about what movies are worth catching. As I start to view more on-demand second screenings, which don’t have the live chat function, I think I might start to miss it.
I will also say that it’s been lovely chatting with some of my friends on social media who have also been doing the virtual festival. We’ve mostly found each other through our Instagram stories and swapped stories in our DMs. It’s not the same as seeing each other in line at a screening and waving, but it’ll do.* I’ve also done several screening parties with friends and family over Zoom, which has been great. I almost always do the festival with my mom, and we’ve kept up that tradition this year. And one of my dearest friends, who lives in Denver and has never done the festival in person, decided to take the virtual festival as an opportunity to Sundance for the first time. (She’s a horror aficionado, and she’s stretched me to venture into the Midnight category; we watched Censor together last night, which we both loved. More on that later.) This is my shout out to all of you who have connected with me over the past few days and helped remind me that the virtual festival is still a communal experience.
Today’s films were more of a mixed bag, but, happily, I ended the day on a strong note with three films I enjoyed. I’ll start the roundup with the documentaries: Sabaya (World Documentary Competition) and Searchers (NEXT). I don’t think I could have purposefully picked two documentaries more opposite in tone or subject matter. Sabaya (directed by Hogir Hirori) follows a group known as the Yazidi Home Center that rescues kidnapped Yazidi women from sex-slavery in an ISIS camp on the Iraqi-Syrian border; Searchers (directed by Pacho Velez) captures impressions of a swathe of New Yorkers as they look for love—or sex or connection—on various dating apps. Sabaya’s subject matter is harrowing, and the people of the Yazidi Home Center (as well as the crew involved with making the film) routinely risk their lives to do the work depicted. The film can’t quite decide, however, whether it wants to be a portrait of the rescued women’s trauma or a heroic account of the incredibly brave people who run the rescue missions. It splits the difference to its own detriment, ultimately.
Searchers proved to be a sweet, surprisingly moving little treat. In an effective move, Velez positions the camera behind a computer screen and puts a crew member in charge of clicking, typing, and inputting information into the computer. Participants in the documentary look directly into the camera as they look at the dating app up on the computer screen. They must verbally communicate what actions they want to take so that the offscreen crew member can execute them on the computer. This choice doesn’t come across like a gimmick; rather, this interruption allows the viewer of the documentary into the decision making process that goes on when someone’s absorbed with a dating app on their phone. This deceptively slight doc thoroughly charmed me. (Tickets to the second screening of Searchers on February 1, 2021 are still available as of this writing.)
From the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, I saw Wild Indian (directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.) and Passing (directed by actress Rebecca Hall). Wild Indian didn’t connect for me, despite an intriguing premise and strong lead performances. Of the two lead characters, the film focused much more on the enigmatic—and likely sociopathic—man (Makwa, played ferociously by Michael Greyeyes), who felt like too much of a blank slate for the film to really kick into high gear. I kept wondering if I would have found the film more successful if the balance had been shifted to focus more on the other lead (Ted-O, sensitively brought to the screen by Chaske Spencer).
The much buzzed about Passing worked best as an acting showcase for Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, who are always powerhouses. In the film, which is set in the 1920s, Thompson and Negga play old acquaintances who accidentally reconnect when they run into each other in a New York City tea room. Since they’ve last spoken, Negga’s character has passed the color line to live as white, hiding her racial identity from her husband and her new social circle. The racial passing aspect of the story has gotten the most attention, but the film investigates various ways that people choose their identities (often at the expense of their authentic selves or true desires) to “pass.” Hall’s directorial debut is an admirably restrained and surprisingly queer psychological thriller shot in delicate black and white. I want to sit with this one to see if the emotional impact deepens or lingers, but I think I liked it.
I rounded out the night by catching up with Censor, which had accumulated great word of mouth buzz since it premiered on opening night. My horror-loving friend, aforementioned above, had singled this film out from the beginning of the festival as one she was excited for; so we were both pretty ready to be taken for a ride by director Prano Bailey-Bond. Both my friend and I really dug this one. Enid (NIamh Algar) works as a censor for the British government, banning “video nasties” to protect the public from their immoral and depraved excesses. (In the 1980s, when the film is set, Britain did censor and ban ultra-violent, low-budget exploitation horror films in a burst of moral panic over these films circulating on VHS.) In an excellent twist on the fear that violent horror films would negatively influence the public’s behavior, Enid slowly loses her grip on reality over the course of the movie, confusing events and unresolved issues from her own childhood with the films she watches every day for work. Bailey-Bond clearly loves the aesthetics of ‘80s horror, and her excellent film pays homage accordingly.
That’s it for day three! day four marks the halfway point of the festival, and I still have so many films I’m looking forward to. Tune in tomorrow for more!
*I tried to work out an on line/online joke here, but that seemed too regional. Also, after only two years in New York, I don’t actually say “on line” instead of “in line.” Sorry, this footnote is basically the equivalent of that lazy “insert joke about [x] here” tweet format. I’m writing these dispatches in a hurry, I don’t have time to be witty!