EDITOR’S NOTE: Part II summarizes the films and programs from Sundance 2024 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.
One of the potential advantages in this year”s slimmer slate for the 2024 edition of the Sundance Film Festival is that there are fewer films than in previous years that already have secured distribution deals so the prospects could be good for negotiating sales for acquisition, according to Geralyn Dreyfous, one of the founders of the Utah Film Center and executive producer and cofounder of Impact Partners and Gamechanger Films.
While there were a record number of feature submissions this year (17,435) and short film submissions (12,098) only 91:features and episodics and 53 short films from around the world were accepted this year. The acceptance rate for this year for features was barely .05%. The feature slate is slimmer by about 27% than last year and competition categories have been shaved from 16 contenders to 10. There are plenty of new faces in the feature filmmakers, with 39% making their debut as a feature director and more than one-half in competition. Eleven of the feature films and projects (which comprise a festival total of 153) are supported by the Sundance Institute in development through direct granting or residency labs.
FILMS CONNECTED TO IMPACT PARTNERS & UTAH FILM CENTER FISCAL SPONSORSHIP
Considering these statistics, Impact Partners as well as Utah Film Center have a more than commendable representation in accepted Sundance films this year, Impact Partners has four feature documentaries and a short which was produced by the University of Utah’s New Narratives in Medicine and directed by Ross Kauffman. Incidentally, Dreyfous’ daughter, McKarah, is associate producer of Monster You, directed by Caroline Lindy.
Three documentaries supported by Impact Partners are in the U.S. Documentary Competition. Gaucho Gaucho (Directors and Producers: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw, Producers: Cameron O’Reilly, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Matthew Perniciaro) was “an easy one to do,” Dreyfous explained. The directors had The Truffle Hunters in the 2020 Sundance slate, which also won a solid list of awards on the festival circuit. As The Utah Review noted at the time about that film, “the true heroes of this magnificent documentary, which echoes the stylistic effects of a masterwork by Caravaggio, Titian or Rembrandt (an effect that Dweck and Kershaw aimed toward), are the elderly men, accompanied by their dogs, who hunt for these rare delicacies during the ideal season that lasts from September through early January.”
Shot in black and white, Gaucho Gaucho celebrates the community of Argentine cowboys and cowgirls, who preserve a tradition that defies the contemporary zeitgeist. The film also received a Utah Film Center sponsorship, the second such endorsement of support for the filmmakers. Dreyfous adds that the cinematography for the jewel of cultural preservation might even be more beautiful than The Truffle Hunters. Looking ahead, Dweck and Kreshaw plan to make their next film about flamenco dancers.
Sugarcane (Director: Julian Brave NoiseCat, Director and Producer: Emily Kassie, Producer: Kellen Quinn) was a project that had support from the Sundance Catalyst Lab. Dreyfous said the project was remarkable in its conception, surrounding the investigation of abuse and missing children at an Indian residential school in Canada and the long-lasting effects it has had on the community of the Sugarcane Reserve. It is an understated yet profoundly emotional reckoning with a story where truth and reconciliation can finally become possible.
Union (Directors: Stephen Maing, Brett Story, Producers: Samantha Curley, Mars Verrone) stood out for Dreyfous in how the filmmakers gained first-hand access to the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which was formed in New York City’s Staten Island. But, Dreyfous added that the film is not just about labor and unionization as it is about the questions of social responsibility and ethics in consumerism, where many might not think about the ramifications of having inexpensive and fee delivery for the sake of consumer expediency. It also touches on how these issues intersect with other topics including immigration and climate change. And, considering the still fresh memories of the labor disputes that grounded Hollywood activity last year, Dreyfous said the film primes the discussion for what it means to dispensable in one’s line of work, when artificial intelligence, robotic automatic and machine learning are brought into the mix.
Impact Partners’ fourth feature Sundance entry, which is in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, is Eternal You (Directors: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck, Producers: Christian Beetz, Georg Tschurtschenthaler). Nearly six years in the making, the documentary explores how tech startups have linked up to artificial intelligence and machine learning to generate avatars that allow grieving relatives to communicate with their loved ones after they have died. Interspersed with three central examples that combine to form a truly emotional apex in the film are questions about the ethics, social ramifications, concerns about exploitation and our collective vulnerabilities in wondering if immortality could ever become possible.
The filmmakers are well versed in the broader questions that such technology raised. Their previous documentary, The Cleaners (2018) explored how content moderators hired by digital media tech giants manage to control what viewers see online. Dreyfous said she was impressed by how the filmmakers crafted the documentary narrative in its balance of empathy and the ethical discussions about authenticity, vulnerability, exploitation and corporate social responsibility. This film also received fiscal sponsorship from the Utah Film Center.
Another film that received fiscal sponsorship from the Utah Film Center is Porcelain War (Director and Screenwriter: Brendan Bellomo, Director: Slava Leontyev, Producers and Screenwriters: Aniela Sidorska, Paula DuPré Pesmen, Producers: Camilla Mazzaferro, Olivia Ahnemann). One of the entries in the U.S.Documentary Film competition, Porcelain War follows three artists who decided to stay in Ukraine and fight in the war with Russia. Mariah Mellus, executive director of the Utah Film Center, said this project was also an easy one to support because of how it weaves a relevant artistic metaphor through scenes in which the audience who have not lived through war conditions can comprehend the gravity as well as the resilient objective of individuals to protect and save themselves during military conflict. A card in the opening of Porcelain War reads: “Nearly all the footage you are about to watch was shot by the subjects in this film.”
Impact Partners also supported a Utah short documentary film, which was accepted into Sundance: dêtetsi vo’i oninjakan (Winding Path) produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robin Honan and co-directed by acclaimed filmmakers Alexandra Lazarowich, winner of the Short Film Special Jury Award for Directing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and Academy Award winner Ross Kauffman. The project was realized in collaboration with University of Utah Health and its Native American Summer Research Internship (NARI) program, made possible by a generous grant from the Kahlert Foundation.
At the center of the short is Jenna Murray (Eastern Shoshone), who returns to the Wind River Reservation after her grandfather’s passing. It has become important for her to reconnect with her tribal heritage and roots, as she considers her studies in a joint M.D.-Ph.D program and seeks to find healing in her grief through Indigenous cultural practices as recommended by a Native American therapist. The fourth in a series of filmed narratives in this project, this short film is the first that was accepted for Sundance.
OTHER SUNDANCE FEATURE FILMS
Others films on this year’s Sundance radar for The Utah Review include other documentaries as well as a narrative feature. Frida (Director: Carla Gutiérrez, Producers: Katia Maguire, Sara Bernstein, Justin Wilkes, Loren Hammonds, Alexandra Johnes) draws on animation with material drawn from her diary, correspondence, personal essays and published interviews.
A potential companion documentary to Eternal You, Love Machina (Director and Producer: Peter Sillen, Producer: Brendan Doyle) expands the territory of the topic of artificial intelligence to potential physiological dimensions and explorations of consciousness that were once the exclusive provenance of science fiction. The prescience of that literary imagination is brought fully forward in this documentary. Martine and Bina Rothblatt, compassionate and ethically sensitive futurists, have commissioned an advanced humanoid AI named Bina48 to transfer Bina’s consciousness from a human to a robot in an attempt to continue their extraordinary love affair for the rest of time.
From a story based in Mexico, the narrative feature of Sujo (Directors, Screenwriters, and Producers: Astrid Rondero, Fernanda Valadez, Producers: Diana Arcega, Jewerl Keats Ross, Virginie Devesa, Jean-Baptiste Bailly-Maitre) is one to watch as a potential grand jury contender. In the midst of the Mexican western state of Michoacán, a cartel gunman has been assassinated and Sujo, his four-year-old son, is left behind. The film’s narrative tension focuses on whether or not the son as he grows into young adulthood can escape the destiny that led to his father’a death. In 2020 at Sundance, Valadez and Rondero won the grand jury prize for best screenplay in their dramatic feature Identifying Features.
From Kenya, The Battle for Laikipia (Director and Producer: Daphne Matziaraki, Director: Peter Murimi, Producer: Toni Kamau) surrounds a long-simmering conflict steeped in historical injustices that have been never fully acknowledged between Indigenous pastoralists and white landowners in Laikipia. Their last documentary I Am Samuel (2021), about a religious Kenyan man who is optimistic about the potential for acceptance and affirmation, was banned in Kenya.
Devo (Director: Chris Smith, Producers: Chris Holmes, Anita Greenspan, Danny Gabai) is the first fully authorized documentary to be made about the legendary new wave band which was formed in northeastern Ohio.
Realm of Satan (Director and Screenwriter: Scott Cummings, Producers: Caitlin Mae Burke, Pacho Velez, Molly Gandour) is a dispassionate portrait of the lives of members of the Church of Satan in both their ordinary and ritualistic experiences. “The resulting film operates on its own rules. Moments of the film are participant-led, others are devised entirely by the moment or by me, and others involve either elaboration or dispassionate observation,” Cummings, who has been involved in numerous Sundance projects but is making his debut as a feature-length director with this film, wrote in his director’s statement. “This is a key difference between my approach and a standard documentary portrait: I understand the religion but I am fundamentally disconnected from it. There are the Satanists, amazing Satanists, in ornate and fantastical houses, standing against the world outside, in their own total environments, and there is us, the camera, unsparing, unblinking, barely moving. Two aesthetics in an unholy marriage.”
From Norway, A New Kind of Wilderness (Director: Silje Evensmo Jacobsen, Producer: Mari Bakke Riise) is an understated testament to the virtues of pastoral life where a couple and their four children thrive in a space away from the hectic modern and urban landscape. But, then a death in the family compels the surviving members to adapt to a different living environment when they realize the difficulties of keeping the status quo.
Among the 40th edition anniversary features in this year’s Sundance lineup, DIG! XX (Director: Ondi Timoner, Producer: Ondi Timoner and David Timoner) is the expanded, remastered and reimagined edition of the original rock doc DIG!, directed by veteran Sundance filmmaker Ondi Timoner, which premiered at the festival in 2004. The film, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, provides a thematic commentary on the contentious counterpoint between artistic principles and the potential for commercial success through the examples of two dueling rock bands — The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The updated version includes new narration by The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Joel Gion and more than 40 minutes of never-before-seen footage.
For more information about Sundance and ticket information, see the festival website.