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2021 Sundance Film Festival: Questlove, Rita Moreno, Pandemic Films

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Sundance Film Festival begins today in Park City, Utah. And because of the pandemic, thousands of film lovers will go to premieres, panels and parties mostly online. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this preview.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This year's Sundance opens with a premiere of the documentary "Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)." Director Ahmir Thompson, known as the musician Questlove, presents footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that has never been seen since.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

MAVIS STAPLES: "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" was Dr. King's favorite song, and sister Mahalia Jackson was my idol. She was my hero. I loved her so much.

DEL BARCO: Listening to singer Mavis Staples praising Mahalia Jackson is just one highlight of the film. In a normal year, there'd be long lines of festivalgoers standing in the snow to get into theaters to watch. This year films will be screened virtually through a specially built online platform, says the festival's new director Tabitha Jackson.

TABITHA JACKSON: The global pandemic hit, and we realized that we had to reimagine everything.

DEL BARCO: Jackson says her team wanted to create a way for filmgoers and filmmakers to gather. They'll be able to chat with each other in virtual waiting rooms, then watch film premieres together before asking questions of the cast and crews.

JACKSON: And that's to preserve the energy and the excitement and the buzz and the conversation in that moment. As we are confined in our safe spaces, this is an opportunity to go out into the world and be taken around the world by some of these films.

DEL BARCO: As an international festival dedicated to independent filmmaking, the Sundance community prides itself on being a bit scrappy.

JACKSON: We're excited. I think this feels like a grand experiment. So people who either couldn't afford it or couldn't make the journey, couldn't navigate the icy streets of Park City can now come to Sundance. We're bringing Sundance to them.

DEL BARCO: This year half the films at Sundance were directed by people of color as well as by women. Many were shot or finished during the pandemic lockdown. There's even one titled "In The Same Breath" about how COVID-19 began in Wuhan, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE SAME BREATH")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Many of the doctors said these hospitals must have known this new virus was spreading between people, but they were afraid to say so for fear of punishment from the government.

DEL BARCO: Among the feature films to watch for is "Coda," about a hearing girl whose family is deaf, also "Son Of Monarchs," about a Mexican biologist, and "Flee," an animated film about an Afghan refugee. Other highlights include a documentary about choreographer Alvin Ailey and another about the life and career of actress Rita Moreno.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT")

RITA MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Life can be bright in America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What was different about Anita in "West Side Story" is that she was a girl who respected herself, who had a certain amount of dignity. Actually, she became my role model.

DEL BARCO: The festival will also include online panels, meet-ups, concerts and parties, many of them free. There will be virtual spaces for Black and Latinx creators, and Jackson says festivalgoers can participate in the New Frontier Program using webcams or virtual reality headsets from home.

JACKSON: You can go in as an avatar. You can wander around this incredible space garden, go to parties, which are where people are going to gather to talk about films. We've built a cinema house in this virtual environment, and there's an extraordinary gallery of new work. The reason I'm so excited about it is because it really is an unusual space in which we can still come together and socialize, and it doesn't feel anything like Zoom.

DEL BARCO: Sundance has also partnered with arthouse cinemas around the country to present some in-person events, including at drive-in theaters.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREAMCAST SONG, "LEO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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