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5 takeaways from this year’s Sundance Film Festival

Feb 9, 2022 10:07:00 AM Written by Diogo Brüggemann 6 min read

January has passed and we have just witnessed another edition of the Sundance Film Festival. In 2022, again, due to the reemergence of COVID-19 cases, we have seen an online only version of the festival, but that did not change the essence of Sundance whatsoever. 

Originally developed to be a hybrid event, both virtual and in Park City, Utah, the festival showcased more than 80 feature-length films, as well as more than 80 short films from all over the world, encompassing a wide range of genres as usual. Covering Sundance for the first time, I observed some trends worth noting. And as Sundance is one of the largest independent film festivals on the globe, those trends may also be seen throughout the coming year.

Horror films dominate the landscape

Fresh (2022)Fresh (2022) - Directed by Mimi Cave


Once considered fringe cinema, the horror genre has had its detractors since the advent of filmmaking. While there are plenty of horror-phobes still out there, no other genre was as successful at Sundance this year. The festival is famous for its Midnight section that traditionally includes some of the most terrifying movies one can imagine, and this year was no different. Mimi Cave’s Fresh was certainly a stand out, telling the story of a young woman caught up in a spine-chilling relationship, while Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching  told a creepy tale of adolescence and family troubles from Finland. Other interesting additions included the Danish vacation horror Speak No Evil, by Christian Tafdrup, and the Spanish bullying flick PIGGY, by Carlota Pereda. But the thing is, horror films were not restricted to the Midnight section and could be found all over the festival, with at least four other scary movies featured in the US Dramatic Competition, including the Grand Jury Prize winner, Nanny, an intriguing story of fear and trauma in the context of immigrant lives. The World Dramatic Competition also included an incredible philosophical horror worth mentioning: You Won’t Be Alone, an internationally co-produced film written and directed by the Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski. 


Documentaries hold their ground

The Territory (2022)The Territory (2022) - Directed by Alex Pritz


Sundance is known for giving documentaries a place to shine in a world that usually does not see them as real competition to fictionalized stories. And while they do not compete against each other in the festival, documentaries have their space, with a large number of productions from different parts of the world being showcased. Among the 20+ docs selected by the programmers of the event, some of them were among the most talked about films during the last week of January. One of the highlights of the competition was Navalny, directed by Daniel Roher, revolving around Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and events regarding his poisoning back in 2020. The daring, Danish-Brazilian documentary The Territory, about the invasion of protected indigenous reserves in Brazil, was also acclaimed for diving into the heart of the Amazon and giving voice to indigenous people threatened by loggers and the far-right government. Both docs mentioned above received Audience Awards at the festival, while the Grand Prize Jury winners were The Exiles, by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus, and All That Breathes, by Shaunak Sen. We should include here the phenomenal Fire of Love by Sara Dosa, which used found footage to explore the lives of fearless scientists and lovers Katia and Maurice Krafft who died in a volcanic explosion in 1991 while doing the very thing that brought them together.


Female filmmakers rule the world

Nanny (2022) - Directed by Nikyatu JusuNanny (2022) - Directed by Nikyatu Jusu


For the first time in the history of the Sundance Film Festival, female-directed films were the majority of works screened at the event, when you take into consideration both the five competitive categories and the films screened in other, non-competitive sections. Of course, that statistic by itself is already an important victory for representation, but it is not the only good trend to emerge from the festival this year. Female directed works have also received the most praise from critics, audiences, and the Sundance Jury alike. Besides the already-mentioned big winner, Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, we should mention Chloe Okuno’s stalker thriller Watcher, Jamie Dack’s slowburn coming of age Palm Trees and Power Lines, and Mariama Diallo’s academic thriller Master. Also, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande by Sophie Hyde was one of the festival darlings, together with the Filipino genre-bending Leonor Will Never Die by Martika Ramirez Escobar. The Audience Award in the World Dramatic Competition category was also won by a female-directed movie, the impressive Finnish teenage friendship drama Girl Picture, by Alli Haapasalo: one of the many international female filmmakers to inspire audiences at Sundance 2022.


International films are the ones to watch

Utama (2022) - Directed by Alejandro Loayza GrisiUtama (2022) - Directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi


And speaking of international filmmakers, Sundance has a great reputation for showcasing amazing artists from all over the planet, and this year was no exception. I would go as far to say that foreign titles quietly took the festival by storm. The best example of that was certainly the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Dramatic Competition, the outstanding Bolivian drama Utama (named Our Home in English), directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi. This amazing film was not on many of my press colleagues’ lists before the festival started, but I made sure I had a ticket to watch a fellow South American film at Sundance. Fortunately, I was right to do so, because Utama slowly became a must-see work of art about the effects of climate change on indigenous populations and rightfully got a popularity boost as the festival went on. The Brazilian family drama with political implications Mars One, by Gabriel Martins, was also adored by most of those lucky enough to watch it. Mexico’s Dos Estaciones by Juan Pablo González and Ukraine’s Klondike by Maryna Er Gorbach were other hidden gems of the festival that will unquestionably make headlines during the year.


Streaming services are the highest biddersCha Cha Real Smooth - Directed by Cooper Raiff

Cha Cha Real Smooth - Directed by Cooper Raiff


Now, market-wise, Sundance has always been considered a platform to catapult indie films into the mainstream, sometimes with eye-popping deals, such as CODA’s acquisition by AppleTV+ for a record breaking 25 million dollars back in 2021. This year, the highest disclosed deal was also made by AppleTV+: the company bought the worldwide distribution rights to Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, an adorable rom-com starring Dakota Johnson and Raiff himself. But that was not the only Sundance acquisition by a streaming service, far from it. From all of the deals closed so far, more than half of them involved some kind of over-the-top (OTT) media service. This is certainly good news for producers and filmmakers alike during a period when cinema is still affected by the pandemic. It means independent films can still find a home, even if we need streaming services to come to the rescue.

Diogo Brüggemann

Diogo Brüggemann is a Brazilian film enthusiast with a Master's Degree in Cinema and Literature. He has written about films and their relationship with gender and sexuality, as well as the connections between cinema and foreign affairs. He maintains a website in Portuguese focused on film critique.

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