Thursday, May 13, 2021

In the Reels: Sundance Film Festival flourishes online

By Cameron Kaercher

Last fall, the New York Film Festival proved that the film festival platform can exist online. While nothing can come close to the theater-going experience, all you really need for a festival is a collection of great films.

This year at the Sundance Film Festival, there was no shortage of great selections. Two very special films stood apart from the pack; a documentary about an almost lost to time music festival, and a coming of age drama that gave voice to the voiceless.

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who is most known for being the drummer of The Roots. His documentary focuses on the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, an incredible multi-weekend concert series that hosted B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and many others.

This incredible celebration of music and culture that captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of attendees was filmed with care. Sadly, the footage was stored in a basement and was not shown to the public for over 50 years.

Restorations of film and TV footage is a whole aspect of the entertainment industry. The Film Foundation is a company solely dedicated to polishing up classic and foreign films to be screened again in the modern era. It is vital because media and culture are deeply intertwined, and as a society we can’t risk losing any piece of our culture.

There were no business or financial issues with the concert footage. It was just simply lost, which can serve as a greater symbol for Black erasure in America. That same summer, the Woodstock Rock Festival was held, and it has since been treated to two separate albums with several anniversary rereleases. Why was Woodstock better preserved than this equally great festival?

Questlove’s attempt to revitalize the history of this event is admirable on its own, but the film is so enjoyable in its own right. The film revels in the celebration of great music, while also providing historical context for this historic summer. It is no wonder that it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. documentary.

“Summer of Soul” has since been purchased by Searchlight Pictures and Hulu for distribution.

On the fictional side of Sundance, “CODA” gathered a lot of buzz as it took home four awards from the U.S. dramatic category of the festival. These awards included the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, the Directing Award, and the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member in her entirely deaf family, to quote the title’s acronym, a “Child Of Deaf Adults.” As she comes closer to her high school graduation, she is faced with a choice between going to music school or staying home to support her family’s fishing business.

The casting of Ruby’s family is notably represented by actors who are hearing impaired in real life. Daniel Durant, who plays Ruby’s brother Leo, is the standout of the ensemble as he sells a lot of the subtext in the central sibling relationship. Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, who play Ruby’s parents, are seasoned professionals that bring an unexpected amount of dirty humor to the film. When they are all together, at the dinner table for instance, the film flourishes as we get to see their familial chemistry, which is endearing and funny at the same time.

What may be the nicest thing about this film is that it isn’t about hearing loss, but about growing up. Writer-director Sian Heder, allows the family’s disability only to exist in its own right and does not draw attention to that fact. “CODA” could not be a more welcoming crowd pleaser. The performances feel real, the plot is effective and it tugs at your heartstrings at the end for good measure.

“CODA” was purchased for streaming release by Apple and should be released later this year.

Email Cameron Kaercher at cp@cardinalpointonline.com

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