Sundance 2021: Four documentaries, one narrative highlight Utah connections to festival slate; Tumbleweeds for Kids selections

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part II summarizes the films and programs from Sundance 2021 that are part of The Utah Review coverage. For Part I which is an overview of the state of the film industry in Utah, see here.

Films premiering this week at Sundance include documentaries about one of the greatest American choreographers of the 20th century, the stressful college application process for students in San Francisco’s top ranked public high school, the holistic impact of California wildfires and the legacy of a community of Catholic nuns as social justice activists. Other films include the adaptation of a 1929 Harlem Renaissance novella about two African-American women who pass as white and a documentary about the young idol who mesmerized viewers in the 1971 classic film Death In Venice.

This year, there are four documentaries and one narrative that are associated either with the Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship program and/or the center’s cofounder, Geralyn Dreyfous, through Impact Partners Film and Gamechanger Films. The Utah Film Center also is presenting six films from its Tumbleweeds library, including three new offerings, in conjunction with Sundance’s virtual Festival Village on Main Street platform.

Jamila Wignot, director of Ailey. Photo credit: Adam Kurnitz

Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship program functions like a socially responsible, cinema-focused version of Kickstarter. Once a project is accepted into the program, the film can take advantage of the film center’s role as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, making it easier for donors to contribute directly to the project of their choice. It has become a win-win model for all stakeholders, including donors who contribute to specific center’s fiscal sponsorship initiatives.

Donations are completely tax-deductible, and filmmakers receive 94 percent of the donations, as the center only uses six percent of each donation to cover administrative expenses. And, every film that receives fiscal sponsorship is eventually presented at one of the many free, public screenings the center offers every year.

To date, numerous films have premiered at Sundance or at other major film festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and Tribeca, with many garnering major juried awards. Many are picked up for distribution and have become available on streaming platforms. The Utah Film Center also brings numerous Sundance projects after their premiere back to local audiences as part of their regular programming.

A still from Rebel Hearts by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. 

In addition, The Utah Review will cover several short film programs. This year’s slate includes 50 short films from 27 countries and were chosen from 9,933 submissions. The Utah Review will cover five programs including those short films representing animation and documentaries.

The following summarizes the films which are part of The Utah Review’s Sundance coverage this year:


Ailey (directed by Jamila Wignot)

In 1958, Alvin Ailey founded the American Dance Theater company that bears his name with an impact that continues to reverberate in the modern dance world today. Made as a PBS American Masters series documentary, the film weaves archival footage including interviews with Ailey, who died in 1989, along with contemporary interviews with artists and colleagues. Ailey’s story is intertwined with rehearsal scenes of a 60th anniversary commission being created by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris. Just two weeks ago, the film was picked up by Dogwoof for international distribution rights outside of the U.S.

Dreyfous, who recalls meeting many Ailey company principals when they performed at cultural events during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City,  says that the decision to support the project was among the easiest she has made. “It is a wonderful tribute to a man who died too young and who broke so many barriers in the arts world while pioneering ways to bring storytelling into contemporary dance,” she explains.

A still from Bring Your Own Brigade by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lucy Walker. 

Bring Your Own Brigade (directed and written by Lucy Walker)

Told in a cinema verité style with a 360-degree anthropological view, this world premiere documentary focuses on the alarming trend of more intense California wildfires and the intersections of the human impact of such events along with climate change, sociocultural concerns, land development, town and residential planning and fire suppression strategies. Walker examines two of the worst wildfires in 2018: the Camp Fire which affected the Paradise town in the northern part of the state and the Woolsey Fire in Malibu. Walker’s connections to the Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship program extends more than eight years, when her film The Crash Reel premiered at Sundance in 2013.

“Walker is an exquisite filmmaker who brings clearly the dimensions of development, farming, watershed management, land management policy, climate change and many other factors into the story of California wildfires,” Dreyfous says.

Passing (directed and written by Rebecca Hall)

Framed as a psychological thriller about the consequences of intricately constructed realities in how people present themselves, Passing is adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. The book has gained renewed attention in recent years because of its thematic matter dealing with the shifting and liminal spaces of identities and terms of race, gender and class. The case includes Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård and Bill Camp. The film is set in the same period as Larsen’s original story.

A still from Try Harder! by Debbie Lum, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lou Nakasako. 

Rebel Hearts (directed by Pedro Kos)

A comprehensive historical portrait of a major chapter in the movement for women’s rights and feminism along with social justice causes, Rebel Hearts covers six decades of stories surrounding the women who belonged to The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), a Catholic community in southern California. The film is the culmination of a 20-year project incorporating archival footage, interviews with the subjects and development of animation and motion graphic effects that amplify the story of the IHM nuns. The film spans major events from Vatican II to the confrontation with Cardinal James McIntyre, the longtime archbishop of the Los Angeles diocese, and to the 1965 civil right’s march in Selma and the Women’s March in 2017 in Washington, D.C., the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

Kos also is a familiar artist to the Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship program. In 2017, he co-directed the documentary Bending the Arc, with Kief Davidson, a film that premiered at Sundance and highlighted the work of Partners in Health in delivering critical health care to some of the poorest areas in the world.

Try Harder! (directed by Debbie Lum)

Told through the stories of five students, Try Harder! chronicles the stress of the stakes involved in applying for college. Lum turns to San Francisco’s Lowell High School, the crown jewel of academic excellence in the Bay Area’s public school system, where some students are invited, for example, to participate in graduate-level science research labs at the University of California at San Francisco. The high-achieving students come from various backgrounds including Asian American families as well as other racial and class demographics. Lum follows their progress as they hope to secure admission from any of the eight Ivy League schools or prestigious institutions such as Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Duke.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.

Dreyfous believes this documentary will be among the most talked about films from Sundance. “It really brings the issue home for everyone involved including families, guidance counselors and college admissions officers,” she says. “It’s very well crafted in terms of editing. its storytelling visuals and the articulate voices of the students.”


The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (directed by Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri)

Fifty years after the premiere of Death in Venice, the Luchino Visconti film which adapted the Thomas Mann novella, this documentary follows the life of Björn Andrésen, who at the age of 15 portrayed Tadzio, the character who was the object of obsession the fictional composer Gustav von Aschenbach. Visconti proclaimed the young Swedish actor as the “most beautiful boy in the world.” While the experience brought the young Andrésen a brief period of intense global fame, his life was utterly transformed and beset by numerous heartbreaks and tragedy.

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran (written by Javaad Alipoor (UK/Iran) and correlated by Alipoor and Kirsty Housley)

A dark comedy piece integrating digital theater and a live Instagram feed, “Rich Kids evolved from thinking about how the behavior of spoiled pampered children of powerful parents is such a universal and theatrical story – from Prince Hal in Henry V to Fredo in the second Godfather movie,” Alipoor says in a prepared statement. “When we distilled that down more into the dramatic retelling of the lives of two particularly egregious Rich Kids of Tehran, you realie that they are living in a way that we are all complicit with. As the insurrectionary right storm democracy, as the climate crisis really kicks in, as countries fall apart and economies stagnate – we are all faced with a challenge – similar to the young people whose death in a Porsche crash begins the show: how do we find the breaks?”

Weirdo Night (with lead artists Jibz Cameron, Mariah Garnett)

This is a filmed edition, hosted by Dynasty Handbag, of the popular, underground live performance and comedy event of the same title. Weirdo Night was held monthly in Los Angeles, up until pandemic restrictions closed in-person events. The cast includes Patti Harrison, Smiling Beth, Morgan Bassichis, Sarah Squirm, Hedia Maron and Blasia Discoteca.


The Adventures of Thomas and Felix (directed by Micah Barber)

The film’s setting is a familiar one: a pre-adolescent boy, who feels no one seems to be listening to him including his well-intentioned parents, is apprehensive about going to summer camp. And, his parents insist that he cannot take his beloved stuffed animal and best friend, Felix the Fox. In his adventures, Felix the Fox is a “real friend” (and, played in human form) but soon the boy realizes even in the magical environment of the Who Knows forest that he can learn to grow out of his awkwardness and gain confidence. With two film festival awards in its portfolio, the film is a solid, thoughtful entertaining feature that blends the lines of fantasy and real-life in credible ways that will resonate with children and adults. The film was the opening night event at the 2018 Tumbleweeds Film Festival. (Ages: 8+)

The Bears Famous Invasion Of Sicily / France, Italy (directed by Lorenzo Mattotti)

To find his long lost son and food to survive the winter, the great bear king leads his clan down from the mountains and into the world of men. After escaping terrible monsters and defeating an evil duke, the bears and men live together in peace – for a time. The film was screened at the  2019 Cannes Film Festival. (Ages 10+)

A still from Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor and Kristy Housley, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Pete Dibdin.

Felix / South Africa (Director: Roberta Durrant)

In this uplifting film from South Africa, 14-year-old Felix Xaba must overcome obstacles at home and school in order to fulfill his dreams. This film was screened at the 2014 Tumbleweeds Film Festival (Ages 10+)

H is for Happiness / Australia (directed by John Sheedy)

Candice, a talented student who is trying to cope with the dysfunctions that threaten to separate her family, makes friends with Douglas, a new boy at her school. Her positive attitude underlies her determination to reconcile problems in her closest relationships. The film won finalist honors at the 2019 Cinefest Oz. It was selected for last year’s Tumbleweeds Film Festival. (Ages 10+)

Los Bando / Norway (directed by Christian Lo)

Best friends Axel and Grim dream of making musical history with their teen band “Los Bando Immortale.” After receiving an invitation to the Norwegian Rock Championship it now appears anything is possible. The only problem is Axel can’t sing and Grim can’t bear to tell him the truth. They hire Martin (a race car driver) and invite Thilda (a nine-year-old cellist) and set out on a musical road trip to the far Norwegian north. With every passing kilometer, the band grows closer and it becomes clear that they were destined to change rock forever! Or maybe not. Official Selection: 2018 Kristiansand International Children’s Film Festival. (Ages 10+)

Felix the Fox (Delaney Wingrove) follows Thomas Bryce Gheisar through the Who Knows forest. Photo Credit: Lisseth Lopez.

We Are The Radical Monarchs / U.S. (directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton)

Meet the Radical Monarchs, a group of young girls of color at the front lines of social justice. Set in Oakland, a city with a deep history of social justice movements, the film documents the journey of the group as they earn badges for completing units including being an LGBTQ+ ally, preserving the environment, and disability justice. Started by two queer women of color, the film follows them as they face the challenge to grow the organization, before and after the 2016 elections. (Ages 12+).

For complete details about Sundance films and tickets, see the festival website.

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