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General Atmosphere At The 2017 Sundance Film Festival
A view of the Egyptian Theatre marquee during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Sundance welcomes audiences back to the theater as festival opens

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — The Sundance Film Festival met the moment by going virtual for the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. But on Thursday, there was a palpable sense of relief from the festival's leadership team at being in-person again.

Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, director of programming Kim Yutani, senior programmer John Nein and incoming Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez gathered Thursday afternoon in Park City, Utah, to discuss what's to come. Just outside, on a snowy Main Street, finishing touches were being put on storefronts and restaurants that sponsors have taken over for the week.

"It feels so good to be back in person," Vicente said. "There's nothing like the magic of being together in Park City."

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Yutani also announced the last-minute addition of "Justice," a documentary from filmmaker Doug Liman about allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, that will debut Friday.

"It was a powerful documentary that we felt was important to add," Yutani said. "We saw it, like, yesterday."

Eleven films have their world premieres Thursday night, including the documentary "Little Richard: I Am Everything" and the Frankenstein-inspired psychological horror "birth/rebirth," about a morgue technician who reanimates a little girl. Also on Thursday, "Shayda," about an Iranian mother and her 6-year-old daughter who go to a women's shelter in Australia, "The Longest Goodbye," a documentary about a NASA psychologist preparing Mars-bound astronauts for social isolation, the Daisy Ridley film "Sometimes I Think About Dying" and "Kim's Video," a documentary about a hunt for a lost video collection of 55,000 movies.

Programmers watched 16,000 films to determine this year's slate of 111 films and say that there is something for everyone. Biographical documentaries, films about world issues and diasporic filmmaking are especially popular this year.

Nein said that he expects audiences to be buzzing about the performances of both known stars like Jonathan Majors, in "Magazine Dreams," Cynthia Erivo, in "Drift," and Eugenio Derbez in "Radical" and newcomers like Lío Mehiel in "Mutt" and Priya Kansara in "Polite Society."

The Sundance Institute is also hosting a dinner Thursday night honoring filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, Ryan Coogler, Nikyatu Jusu and W. Kamau Bell. There will also be a fundraising component to support the Institute's work. Vicente said that it has been a challenging few years for the Institute, financially.

Sundance is not just a festival, after all. The non-profit institute, founded by Robert Redford in 1981, provides year-round support to emerging filmmakers with labs, fellowships and mentorship.

"The festival is this amazing platform to celebrate and share with audiences," Vicente said. "But really, as Robert Redford says, the engine, the most important work we do happens year-round."

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Filmmaker Sophie Barthes, whose film "The Pod Generation" is among the opening night selections, attributes her career to the Sundance Institute. Her first short film debuted at the festival almost 20 years ago, marking the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day. Over the years, she participated in the director's lab, the composers' lab and the writers' lab. It's also where she debuted her first feature, "Cold Souls," with Paul Giamatti, in 2009.

"I wouldn't be here without Sundance," Barthes said in a recent interview. "They helped my career so much. I had like 50 advisers, the best of the best in the industry. It was like a film school on steroids. For filmmakers it's the best thing that can happen to you because once you enter the family, they help and support you."

Her film "The Pod Generation" is a futuristic satire about a New York couple (played by Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor) who use an "artificial womb" to get pregnant. She wanted to explore not-so-far-off advancements like artificial gestation and AI therapy and poke at ideas like detachment parenting.

"It's a satire about the fact that we've lost so many of our instincts because of this modern life, we're trying to reinvent the wheel and it becomes very comical," Barthes said. "I think it's very funny to explore the psychology of parents, especially in New York."

She hopes the film raises a debate about our relationship to technology. It will also be part of the "beyond film" conversations taking place in Park City outside of the cinemas throughout the week. Subjects range from how to cross-over from television to film, with "Flight Attendant" director Susanna Fogel whose "Cat Person" is premiering at the festival, to representation, with Randall Park and Marlee Matlin. There will be conversations about making your first feature and even burnout, with Majors, food writer Ruth Reichl and graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Many of the sponsors, from Acura to Adobe, are also hosting timely conversations as well about climate change in movies, reclaiming trans narratives, building inclusive productions and even getting into Sundance.

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The festival has continued to evolve over the past few years. Though in-person was the priority, they also committed to a hybrid format. This year some 80 films will be available to watch online for ticketholders. The digital package, Vicente said, sold out very quickly.

"The last two years have been successful, but there's nothing that can replace the in-person experience of watching films on the big screen," Yutani said.

The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 29.

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