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The Current Debate: Highlights from the COVID-era Sundance

Among the most exciting premieres at Sundance were films that plugged into our quarantine zeitgeist: a survey of the debates around them.
Leonardo Goi
Above: In the Same Breath 
Browsing through the gargantuan output of reviews, dispatches, and reports coming in from Sundance, the festival’s 2021 edition is widely praised as a logistical and curatorial success. Shortened to seven days compared to the usual ten, its films premiered on a bespoke digital platform and in a handful of selected hubs in Utah and other US states—a hybrid approach that worked smoothly, and made up for the social-cultural intangibles lost in the online format. As Eric Kohn notes at IndieWire, the new virtual hangout spaces set up for post-screening discussions helped make sure “#Sundance felt like Sundance,” while the edition’s slimmer lineup also gave more breathing room to smaller, more intriguing titles. If those went on to enjoy “the proverbial big-stage treatment,” A.A. Dowd contends in his roundup at the A.V. Club, it was largely because “they weren’t competing with the more polished, star-powered ones that feel like indies only in relative budget, and which sat out this less glamorous edition of America’s most prominent film festival.”
As it turned out, the most interesting selections spoke more or less directly to our current traumas, embracing aesthetics The Ringer’s Adam Nayman sees as “ideally suited to a 'virtual' festival, and ideas that plug and play directly into a quarantine zeitgeist.” 
Among them was Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, a documentary focusing on “simulation theory,” a branch of pseudoscience that contends that our world is just a computer simulation in the vein of The Matrix. Populated by interviewees Ascher transforms into video-game-type avatars, A Glitch introduces us to a pantheon of eccentrics expounding their eccentric theories. Yet the tenor, as per Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, is not one of doubt or ridicule; ultimately, "A Glitch in the Matrix becomes not about whether we’re living in a simulation, but about the many understandable reasons someone may think this."
“As a case for the potential fakeness of all things,” to borrow again from Adam Nayman at The Ringer, “A Glitch in the Matrix’s combination of sober hypotheticals and Reddit-thread theorizing is less than convincing.” And yet, 
 As a study of the social, technological, and cultural conditions that have bred a generation of desultory, apocalyptic American solipsism—and the nihilistic consequences of wannabe Neos believing they are the One—the film exerts a chill, clinical fascination.
Ascher’s film pairs beautifully with another entry that sought to wrestle with our relationship with reality: Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Part horror film, part coming-of-age, it follows a teenage girl who joins “the internet’s scariest online horror game” and ventures down an online rabbit hole of creepypasta dares. In the words of the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd, Schoenbrun’s feature debut was possibly “the perfect choice for a film festival that’s left all of us staring into the virtual void, searching for signs of life on the other end or at least in the library of films at our fingertips.” But as Guy Lodge reflects in his Variety review, the film also marks a refreshing rupture from the “distinctly alarmist, out-of-touch films about the perils of screen-centered life,” offering instead “an exploration of the world (and parallel worlds) of online role-playing game culture that is equally alive to its manifold dangers and possibilities for self-realization.”
It’s in that willingness to explore the sense of discovery that online anonymity provides, Abby Sun observes in one of her dispatches for Filmmaker Magazine (arguably your most insightful and comprehensive guide to this year’s festival), that World’s Fair draws much of its perturbing allure. As the film draws to a close,
…it’s deliberately unclear who is the creator and who the consumer of World’s Fair creepypasta. Herein lies World’s Fair own strangeness: for all its present-tense durational qualities, it best encapsulates an unspoiled vision of the internet as a place for one-on-one interactions and solitary discovery. I’m still puzzling through whether the film yearns for these supposed golden-days of internet-based self-actualization, and whether it’s positing their continued existence today.
Above: The Pink Cloud
If World’s Fair was somewhat attuned to our lockdown mode, Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud felt “downright clairvoyant,” Susannah Gruder writes at Reverse Shot. Written in 2017 and shot in 2019, Gerbase’s feature debut conjures a dystopia where a mysterious pink cloud descends on the world, killing anyone exposed to it in a matter of seconds. Set in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the film follows two single people who hook up the night before the apocalypse and are forced to share the same flat until further notice. According to Screen Daily’s Jonathan Romney, Gerbase is far less interested in the logic or meaning of the catastrophe than in the effects the forced isolation bears on her duo — a narrower focus that turns The Pink Cloud into a chamber piece:
Despite the premise, with its suggestion of environmental dystopia, this is not so much a science fiction film as an existential one, an investigation into the human condition and our adjustment to the unimaginable. In depicting the fine fluctuations of an otherwise monotonous ‘New Normal’, Gerbase shows our ability to accept the unacceptable – whether that’s a sign of docility or of resilience.
But the film’s worth extends far beyond its near-prophetic quality. That it might “endure as more era-evocative than many of the intentional pandemic dramas to come,” Guy Lodge speculates at Variety, is a testament to its ability to capture the emotional costs of a life spent in a state of chronic stasis — a point echoed by The Atlantic’s David Sims, for whom The Pink Cloud succeeds “by being almost inadvertently relevant, focusing mostly on the psychological toll” taken on its characters.
Nowhere did that sense of ongoingness feel more acute than in Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath, an eye-opening and infuriating document of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way China and America lied to their people about its threat. Quarantined in the US, Wang recruited a small crew of camera people in Wuhan to record interactions in housing complexes and hospitals. Which means that the footage, as remarked by Rolling Stone’s K. Austin Collins (who hails Wang’s as “the single most impassioned, surprising, and intelligently designed film” of his Sundance), is both “recorded at the behest of this project, [and] also tangled up in the intentions and attentions of those doing the filming.”
We’re left grappling with a fierce study of two propaganda machines (Xi Jinping’s and Trump’s) feeding off each other. Indeed, “Wang’s anger at the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic is fuelled,” Richard Brody argues at The New Yorker, “by her understanding of the propaganda value it offers to the Chinese government and to other authoritarians worldwide.”
…the cries of “freedom” on the part of maga-hatted pandemic denialists, conspiracy theorists, and profiteers tarnish the very concept and give comfort to those who repudiate it. Yet in Wang’s view, American failures appear not merely as a public-relations disaster but as a betrayal of core values; her view of democracy, far from merely procedural, is rooted in responsibility and responsiveness to the needs of the citizenry. There have been, and will be, many dissections of Trump’s assault on democracy and of his solipsistic mishandling of the pandemic; Wang’s insight shows us, via her compassionate and indignant observation of China’s experience, that the two are of a piece.
Still, touting Sundance 2021 as a COVID-themed edition (however pertinent the label may be) risks glossing over other riveting and equally timely standouts. I look forward to watching the winner of the US Documentary Competition’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), an exhumation of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which, as Rolling Stone’s David Fear eloquently observes, doubles as “a reclamation,” a reminder that “music acted as a salve for state-institutionalized violence, a celebration and a catalyst for change.” Sian Heder's CODA (which nabbed the Grand Jury prize, audience award, and best directing in the US Dramatic Competition before selling to Apple for a record-breaking $25 million) also promises much to behold. By telling the story of a Deaf family (and casting Deaf actors for the roles), Heder's latest feature "makes a sterling argument for more films like it," Kate Erbland argues at IndieWire, "which is to say, movies that focus on underserved characters and performers."
Rebecca Hall's directorial debut Passing, about the friendship between two Black women in the 1920s, one of whom is passing herself off as white, was another highlight—"a beautifully rendered story that may be first and foremost about racial identity," Stephanie Zacharek writes at TIME, "though it enfolds so many ancillary reflections within its petals—on the power of longing and jealousy, and on the truth that we all make choices that define us as individuals—that anyone can respond to it." And I hope to soon catch up with Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, praised by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times as “a meditation on the passage of time (real and cinematic)” that feels entirely sui generis, morphing into a meteorological crisis drama “that brushes up—fascinatingly, not exploitatively—with our own global health crisis.”
Above: I Was a Simple Man
But the film whose critical reception left me most intrigued is Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second feature: I Was a Simple Man, an intimate portrait of a terminally-ill Japanese-American man from Hawaii who’s visited by the ghosts of his late wife and of the children he’s abandoned after her death. It’s “a combination of a ghost story and a memory piece,” Richard Brody suggests at The New Yorker, and “by melding the two forms, conveying the endurance of the past by way of both thought and incarnation, Yogi creates a cinema that is simultaneously meticulously physical and wildly metaphysical.” Seesawing between past and present, between reality and fantasy, “entire histories —ethnic, national, familial, political— get teased out with a subtlety and breadth that will take you aback,” K. Austin Collins promises at Rolling Stone. While at Filmmaker Magazine, Vadim Rizov does an excellent job at spotting Yogi’s stylistic references (from Apichatpong Weerasethakul to David Lynch via the doyens of the New Taiwanese Cinema) and highlighting the many ways in which these morph into an entrancing and heterogeneous whole:
Throughout, there’s the feeling of strong artistic inspirations being literally projected onto new landscapes and buildings; both the artistic idioms and locations come out transformed and stronger for the encounter. I can’t pretend Yogi’s New Taiwanese Cinema antecedents don’t make me more receptive (I love all this stuff too), but it’s very easy to get this idiom wrong… Two features in, Yogi’s still expanding his emotional and stylistic range for something that’s more often hypnotic than clumsy.
It strikes me as the beguilingly low-key and wildly original kind of film Sundance was designed to champion. One can only hope, as with the other standouts of this strange edition, that the ether won’t be its only home. 
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.


The Current DebateRodney AscherJane SchoenbrunIuli GerbaseNanfu WangAhmir Questlove ThompsonAna KatzChristopher Makoto YogiSundanceSundance 2021Columns
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