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Sundance 2021 Critic’s Notebook 1 (Abby Sun): CODA, Summer of Soul (…Or, How the Revolution Could Not be Televised)

Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

in Filmmaking
on Jan 30, 2021

This year, at least tacitly, Sundance is providing the infrastructure, or at the very least supplementing the marketing for events, panels, and film after-parties, that used to circle the periphery of private condos or invite-only events—the festival is the conduit, not the exclusive platform. My Sundance 2021 started not on opening night but in the weeks and months leading up to it, via viewing links shared in advance with many programmers and industry members. Long before that, due to the festival’s mostly-virtual nature, Sundance’s team had lots of news and announcements to share. In summer 2020, they revealed the festival’s hybrid nature—new dates starting a week later than usual, the virtual platform’s tech (Shift72)—and continued through the fall with the reduced competition’s exact size and premiere sections, a regional pop-up program called Sundance Satellites and that program’s selected screens, and panel and events programming from the many corporations and organizations who previously ran “houses” lining Park City’s Main Street and adjacent areas. This year, all official Sundance business was centralized on the virtual Main Street festival page, which proudly displays advertorial sponsor pages next to relevant panels hosted by community partners. This page is a unified visual bombardment calcifying the commercial-industrial mix that’s characterized Sundance’s unbroken prominence in the US film industry since the ’90s.

Lots was announced to fanfare, some less so. Inconvenient Indian, the latest documentary from Candian filmmaker Michelle Latimer—whose shorts and episodic series on Indigenous stories have been programmed at Sundance for a decade, and who, as recently as January 2020, was awarded as artist-in-residence at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab—was supposed to have its international premiere in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance 2021 after rave reviews at TIFF. But in December 2020, CBC published a long investigative piece from two journalists that found Latimer’s claims of Indigneity dubious. In addition, Latimer had benefited from prizes, resources, and space aimed at Indigenous filmmakers in Canada. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis filmmakers who were interviewed for or collaborated with Latimer on Inconvenient Indian asked that the producers (and funder, Canada’s National Film Board) pull the film from Sundance and all subsequent festivals as part of a community accountability process. A couple weeks later, Ali El Arabi’s Captains of Zaatari was announced as a late addition to the World Documentary Competition—presumably to fill the resulting open slot, in the same press release that highlighted Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (and its many Satellite drive-in and outdoor screenings).

These 28 Sundance Satellite sites are Sundance 2021’s most unusual and ambitious feature. Other post-COVID festivals have successfully hosted hybrid versions, and each learned from their predecessors. In November 2020, IDFA not only screened their entire selection in reduced capacity theaters but gave filmmakers access to a live feed of the audience during their screenings so they could see the realtime effect their films had. The IDFA DocLab created their own virtual platform (via ohyay, a Snapchat API) that served as the exhibition space for the new media section, as well as a proximity-enabled online social space for any attendee. Göteborg went in the opposite direction and spent resources on publicizing their “Isolated Cinema”—for seven days starting January 30, one person was lucky enough to be selected to be dumped on a remote island, armed only with an iPad pre-loaded with the official selection for company. Like IDFA, there was also a marketing component here: Göteborg provided the trip, lodging, groceries and films—in return, the lucky guest had to submit daily video diaries to be posted on official festival channels, facilitated by the shadow presence of one festival staffer whose job is to ensure the daily recordings happen (and, presumably, monitor the participant’s mental health ).

The Sundance Satellite program is the most involved and regionally-oriented of the lot. Sundance Institute has long had an interest in supporting regional arthouses, recognizing that the independent films Sundance (starting from the first edition as the Utah/US Film Festival in 1978) was founded to champion are often best supported by these theaters. In 2005, it was Sundance Institute which supported the first gathering of regional art houses that became the annual Art House Convergence (AHC) conference. The Satellite program is a pandemic-era chance for selected cinemas and museums to further advance their own work in their communities with the Sundance brand and offered films. Though not all Satellite sites, in the end, were able to screen films in-person outdoors or at drive-ins (due to differing restrictions in their home states), dozens started presenting Sundance films on Thursday evening. 

The most worrisome peek behind the curtain occurred earlier this month via a thread on the AHC list-serv, started by a former Black employee of Circle Cinema in Tulsa, OK. The email details the many ways the institution is “one independent venue of many that has been silent on how it has negatively affected its community and perpetuated toxic values contrary to its mission. Since the Black Lives Matter uprisings of the summer of 2020 this institution has remained silent while every other arts institution in our extremely conservative town has spoken up about the harsh realities for Black Americans.” In response, the Circle Cinema founder posted a belated statement on their racial equity plans. This statement included concrete steps for action but no specific acknowledgement of the prior criticism lobbied against them, contrary to the Arts in Color pledge cited at the beginning of the statement. Whether this step shows that the national platform of being a Sundance Satellite can help enact systemic change remains to be seen in the future actions of Circle Cinema. A quick perusal on Glassdoor, which aggregates anonymous reviews of workplace compensation and working environment, revealed at least one other Sundance Satellite appears to mistreat its staff, fire them without reason, and (at one point) offering low pay even by the depressed industry standards. One review from a purported former employee cites “friendships with coworkers due to bonding over unnecessarily stressful work environment” as a perk of working for this particular Sundance Satellite.

To be clear, the vast majority of the 28 Satellite venues appear to have been selected for being BIPOC-led organizations, innovative and artistically-driven programming and having organizational capacity to pull off a mini-festival in their off season. For instance, instead of partnering with the Columbia Film Society—which runs the well-respected Indie Grits Film Festival and the historic Nickelodeon Theater in South Carolina—Sundance selected the Luminal Theater. In June 2020, two former Black employees of the Columbia Film Society revealed the “longstanding issues of institutionalized racism that have for too long been silenced or ignored” in an open letter, prompting the resignation of the founder of Indie Grits. In contrast, the Luminal hasn’t had a long presence in Columbia but has been a recent staple of Black-led, -curated and -attended pop-up programming in NY, from outdoor screening series to BAM Film. The New Orleans Film Society, another Satellite site, publicly posted their new programming practices in advance of Sundance. Standout statements in the document include a commitment to “decenter privilege and whiteness and prioritize artists who have been historically denied access to resources and opportunities within the industry” and “welcome nonconformist and misfit films that often get excluded from other exhibition avenues for not adhering to elitist industry standards.” In addition, many Satellites run fall festivals and are not simultaneously planning a spring festival of their own, for instance, and wouldn’t be cannibalizing their own programming selection. 

Many of these creative responses to the pandemic were announced and spearheaded by new festival director Tabitha Jackson (after six years leading the Institute’s Documentary Film Program). But if this is a “reimagined” Sundance, as festival press releases and press conferences were so fond of reiterating, it is less a reduced Sundance than a consolidated one, mirroring the shrunken commercial diversity and breadth of exhibition spaces in the independent and arthouse film landscape in general.

Before heading from desk to couch to watch my opening night reservation via the festival’s platform, I took a quick detour to the New Frontier section, which this year also serves as Sundance’s virtual social hub. I entered the Space Garden, then the Film Party space through my VR headset, but found both spaces empty. Undeterred, I tried again through the browser-based platform. There were a few dozen folks milling around, making the space feel quite populated, and I recognized many familiar names (and faces). I had a quick conversation with video and performance artist Kalup Linzy (and Sundance New Frontier alum) through the platform’s proximity-enabled video and audio chat feature. Linzy was as humored as I about the awkwardness of seeing each other’s face atop Sundance-branded avatars—the virtual equivalent of the ubiquitous Sundance down jackets that would dot normally Park City. I noted that branching off from the main Film Party room, there are six smaller, themed rooms that comprise a less hectic space. From Day One, it seems a promising social gathering space, provided one has a stable connection. I look forward to further exploring this over the next week.

Regarding opening night selections: CODA, Siân Heder’s follow-up to 2016 Sundance selection Tallulah (an Eliot Page and Allison Janney vehicle that was Heder’s directorial debut), renders clear the positive influence involving the communities a fictional film depicts has on its final form and quality. CODA follows the Rossis, a Deaf family in the fishing town of Gloucester, MA, as their hearing teenaged daughter discovers a passion and calling in singing that catalyzes the conflict between continuing to support her family as an ASL interpreter or pursuing her college dreams in the bright city lights of Boston (in the form of Berklee). Though overly conventionally narrativized, the film is shot, blocked and captioned to provide Deaf audiences the ability to comprehend all the dialogue and signing of Deaf actors Troy Kotsur (who also provided sign language consulting on The Mandalorian), Daniel Durant and the incomparable Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), in a scene-stealing role as a former beauty queen. Hearing characters are played by popular Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, star Emilia Jones and her character’s classmates. Kotsur and Durant were trained by local fishermen to operate their own open-sea trawler,recorded in documentarian process fashion for several crucial scenes. There’s even an anti-capitalist streak in the plotting, as the Rossis eventually form their own fishing co-op with other fishing families, selling directly to customers in order to cut out usurious middlemen, in an unusual but galvanizing vision of co-operative worker-owned businesses. 

In this remake of French box office darling La famille bélier, the raunchy nature of French comedies translates well into the Massachusetts setting of a family unafraid of sexual TMI, serving dual purpose for both humor and pushing back against stereotypes of the sexual autonomy of people with disabilities. The original film was criticized for perpetuating inequities like casting hearing actors in the Deaf roles, rendering the rich culture and history of signed languages to mimicry, and for a simplistic take on the caregiving-yet-savior role of the hearing daughter. CODA sidesteps those pitfalls (the press kit tells me Heder worked closely with two Deaf script consultants). In particular, I was struck by Durant’s character arc as the older brother waiting to step into more of a leadership role within the family, but who has felt cast aside for the hearing abilities of his younger sister. But some other things don’t land quite so well: Derbez’s high school choir teacher role, and almost every rehearsal scene, tip over into paint-by-numbers inspirational tropes. Casting for local Gloucester High School students reflects the racially diverse new immigrant communities in coastal Massachusetts, but these characters have almost no speaking (or singing) lines and come off as window dressing. CODA also keeps La famille belier’s climactic scene, in which the audio fades out so that the film’s audience supposedly experiences what the Rossi parents see of their daughter’s performance, focusing not on the performance but on the audience-within-the-film’s facial expressions. No amount of “nothing about us, without us” authenticity can fully hide the basic paint-by-numbers premise of this film.

Ultimately, however well-produced and tear-jerking the final product is, this film’s provenance situates it a bit outside what a casual attendee might consider US independent film. Heder was first contracted to remake the film for Lionsgate. When that fell through, a former Lionsgate executive continued to push the project until it was eventually produced through Pathé’s new English-language-production scheme with Vendome Films. Pathé is technically an independent film producer, but one operating under a (family-owned) conglomerate that includes a large multinational theater chain. Given the immediate bidding war and huge $25 million+ world rights sale to Apple, streamers are betting on both the general and awards potential of this film.

Day One’s standout opening night film was Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…Or, How the Revolution Could Not be Televised). A decades-long labor of recovery and love from the producers, this archival and interview-based concert documentary records the “lost” 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which lasted for six consecutive weekends and featured the performances of up-and-comers like Gladys Knight as well as a young Stevie Wonder (who opens and closes the film), Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, the 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone and many others. Unlike even the best concert documentaries like Stop Making Sense or Gimme Shelter, cinema verité objects which reveal the artifice of performance through a single act, or Wattstax and Woodstock that feature concerts made up of multiple acts, Summer of Soul expands the lens to the milieu of Black culture and politics—positing that cultural context is an indispensable part of the story and the music. 

In archival films, I’ve always found that contemporaneous news reports and archival B-roll are typically used in supplementary ways whose purely illustrative qualities feel shallow; Summer of Soul brilliantly uses two conceits to unfold these revelations into the very fabric of the film. The first is to take advantage of the hosting ability and political acumen of the Harlem Cultural Festival’s organizer, Tony Lawrence, a consummate politician who could get city departments, artists and recording labels on board with the project as the MC of the entire festival. (The 1969 festival was actually the third edition, which was started in 1967.) His colorful outfits and congenial presence included hobnobbing with the Republican mayor, Dan Lindsay, as well as the many artists and special guests on stage. This narrative thrust provides ample forward momentum as well as contrast with the placeless and destination-based nomadic festivals that characterize the contemporary music festival scene with Coachella, for instance. But more importantly, the film has a startling relationship with memory and the importance of excavating prior history. Talking head interviews with artists that performed at the festival and attendees take place in intimate close-ups with the subjects watching the footage of the festival, cross-cutting this material with the political and cultural context of the time already naturally present in the source footage. Their joy, emotion and humor are connected to Black identity and political power.

There are three stand-out, exemplary sequences, the first involving Mavis Staples and Reverend Jesse Jackson recounting their tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and death, the song he was in the middle of requesting and the festival/film’s continuation of that moment. The second involves an incredible performance of the Staple Singers’s “It’s Been a Change,” cross-cutting the moon landing footage, white American adulatory reactions and man-on-street-interviews of Black attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, who point out the inequal distribution of the country’s resources in sending white men to the moon versus the materially impoverished circumstances of Black Americans. Summer of Soul devotes much of its final act to Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul, using some clips previously been posted to Youtube and more I have not been able to find publicly. If I have a quibble with the film, it’s that it’s not more forthcoming about how Hal Tulchin’s 40-hours of footage of the festival—which Tulchin (who was white and Jewish) could not sell even after positioning the festival as the “Black Woodstock”— came to be uncovered now. The New York Times obituary for Tulchin, who passed away three years ago, reveals he had restored all his tapes, licensed them to other films like Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone (another Sundance opening night film in 2015), and had been working on a feature documentary version for decades (in 2004, Morgan Neville was lined up to direct). This isn’t necessarily the sui generis project it textually presents itself as. 

Politically, the films’ interviews and archival footage holds no bars. The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s sermons are woven throughout, supplemented with interviews with Black scholars and even a Young Lords leader. The film is explicitly pro-Black Panthers, pro-Young Lords, pro-interracial and transnational solidarity movements. It is conscious, as its organizers were, of the complex mapping of the formation of Black identity—in style and hair, musical expression and commercial ownership, political position, Afro-Caribbean modalities—and against mainstream media narratives, while putting forward a multi-sensorial view of a festival space, integrating attendees’ memories of the smell and taste of being present. As a non-Black audience member, I felt privileged and moved to view the attendees enfolding themselves in memories as liberatory as they are forgotten. As Musa Jackson, the “Ambassador of Harlem” explains, to end the film, witnessing is “confirmation that what I knew was real. And not only that, how beautiful it was.”

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