Diversity on Display at Sundance

By Gilbert Galvan  | 

The Sundance Film Festival was different this year. Yes, it was all digital and virtual, with a only a small number of exceptions for local satellite screenings. But pulling all that off, wasn’t the only astonishing feat. It seems as though diversity initiatives in filmmaking finally took hold at the independent film industry’s biggest event. The festival could proudly boast that 50% of its directors this year were women, and 51% were people of color.

The shift is surely due to social and demographic changes in all industries, but no change happens without a guiding hand. For Sundance, that force has been its new Director, Tabitha Jackson, who organized a virtual event in her first year while also bringing new perspectives to the programming. “I like that it’s no longer just a festival for the few,” one filmmaker told the New York Times. In addition to the stunning POC and Female director statistics, the festival also could credit 15% of its movies to LGBTQ+ filmmakers, and 4% to nonbinary directors.

Diverse voices, of course, create new kinds of art that’s unexpected and important. CODA, from writer-director Sian Heder, that features a deaf family whose hearing daughter pursues a dream to become a singer, set Sundance records with a $25 million sale to Apple. Critics also praised Passing, Rebecca Hall’s film set in the 1920s, about well-off Harlem women who can “pass” for being white. Robin Wright made her feature directorial debut with Land, which is generating some Oscar buzz. Camila Wignot’s “Ailey,” a documentary on the legendary African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey, was bought during the festival by NEON, the young company best known for releasing Parasite in 2019. These hits are just scratching the surface of women film makers’ contributions to Sundance.

The festival also continues to expand and celebrate films created by, and featuring, people of color. Last year more than 55 movies written, directed, or led by black talent were shown. This year, the numbers were higher with people of color contributing more than 50 percent to the festival. 53% of the films were directed by nonwhite artists, and included standouts like Angel Manuel Soto’s Charm City Kings, Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version, and Summer of Soul, about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, also known as “Black Woodstock.” And of course, all eyes were on Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which generated talk of its potential as an Oscar contender. The film is a biopic of the life and death of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, and provides a notable contrast to a similar, overlapping historical story in The Trial of the Chicago Seven.

Films from Latinx directors also drew audiences at the festival this year, as did the 7th Annual Latino Hub, hosted again by the Latino Filmmakers Network and Avenida Productions, two organizations that focus on empowering independent filmmakers from marginalized communities and promoting diversity across the industry. I was honored to participate in one of their virtual panels, “The Business of Filmmaking”, to provide guidance to filmmakers on payroll, accounting and residuals.

Representation is important behind and in front of the camera, and Sundance showcased Latinx talent across its films, including notable work from Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez in Sian Heder’s aforementioned Sundance hit CODA, as well as Mexican-American Clifton Collins Jr.’s star turn in Jockey, in which he portrays an aging horse-racing jockey facing the unexpected arrival of someone claiming to be his son. The son is played by Colombian-American actor Moises Arias. One additional standout was Superior, in which Erin Vassilopoulos makes her directorial debut in a film starring Cuban-American sisters Alessandra and Anu Messa, playing twins reunited after many years.

Behind the lens, three films by Latinx directors that were selected for the U.S. Documentary Competition had their world premieres: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, by Puerto Rican Mariem Pérez Riera; Rebel Hearts, by Brazilian-born Pedro Kos; and Users, by Mexican-American Natalia Almada. The World Cinema Dramatic Competition included two South American world premieres: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet / El perro que no calla, from Argentina, and the Brazilian film The Pink Cloud.

Sundance this year is surely an indication of what we can look forward to at the festival in the years to come. 2020 was a difficult year filled with difficult conversations about race, equity, and representation. While Sundance has always been a progressive arena for films, Jackson has brought a new level of openness to communities that have not had nearly enough representation on the big screen.

Gilbert Galvan
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