For the first time since its inception, this year’s iteration of the Sundance Film Festival wasn’t held in picturesque Park City, Utah. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the showcase turned into a virtual event. Promising directors were still on hand to showcase their work, but viewers were able to watch them from the comfort of their living rooms. It wasn’t just the way films were presented that changed, though. The pandemic also impacted how many of these movies were made and what they’re about.
The shift is most obvious in films that are explicitly about the pandemic, of which there are several. For instance, These Days is a pilot episode that stars Marianne Rendón and William Jackson Harper as two 20-somethings in New York struggling during the earlier stages of quarantine. Harper’s character is a culture journalist reporting stories about Zoom orgies, while Rendón is an aspiring dancer who feels like she’s falling behind since she can no longer dance. At one point, her best friend complains that she misses the early days of toilet paper hoarding and Tiger King binge-watching. It feels like a time capsule of early 2020: much of the movie takes place over Zoom calls, and director Adam Brooks says each actor was sent an equipment package so that they could film from their apartments.
On the other end of the spectrum is In the Same Breath, a documentary from director Nanfu Wang (perhaps best known for 2019’s One Child Nation), which presents a harrowing account of the early stages of the pandemic from Wuhan, China, the city where things started. Wang was able to actually get cameras inside of various hospitals in the city to get first-hand accounts from patients and their families. It paints a troubling picture of hospitals that were overwhelmed and unprepared for the sheer scale of infections and a government unwilling to admit fault. Wang, who was born in China but lives in America, then turns her attention to the US, where a similar pattern emerges. Even as someone who has followed news of the pandemic closely since it started, I still found In the Same Breath an eye-opening experience.
(One of the most arresting movies of Sundance, The Pink Cloud, is about living a life under lockdown, but amazingly, it was written in 2017 and filmed in 2019, long before COVID dominated our lives. It’s eerily prescient.)
In other films, the impact is more subtle. The disorienting horror movie In the Earth is set amid a world ravaged by a deadly virus, but it mostly serves as a backdrop to a much stranger story about a fight against nature itself. Early on, you see people wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. But eventually, all of that goes away as the story moves in a very different direction, one centered on mythological creatures. Still, even these brief inclusions — things so common to everyday life now — serve to ground an otherwise manic film. The same goes for Searchers, a documentary about online dating, where there’s plenty of footage of people in masks wandering the streets of New York. This doesn’t really influence the stories people tell about their romantic lives. It’s set-dressing more than anything.
The dramatic comedy How It Ends isn’t about the pandemic in any way, but it’s clear that directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones had to find creative ways around distancing restrictions. The story is playfully dark. With an asteroid scheduled to destroy Earth, Liza (played by Lister-Jones) goes on a small adventure to wrap up some loose ends in her life: revealing to her parents how their absence made her feel, reconnecting with a lost friend, telling off an ex who cheated, and capping it off with a hopefully hedonistic party.
It’s not a Purge-style situation, though. This pre-apocalyptic movie is surprisingly quiet, as Liza wanders down mostly empty LA streets and stays six feet away from almost everyone. Strangely, it works. You do notice the distancing and emptiness, but it also puts a bigger focus on the characters and their performances, which are almost uniformly excellent. The limitations don’t end up hampering the overall experience.
Of course, it’s not a surprise that the biggest story of 2020 would impact the world of film. The pandemic has changed the way all of us live and altered our relationship with entertainment. But what’s been fascinating at Sundance is seeing the many ways creators have dealt with it — whether it’s in the stories they tell or the logistical challenges of actually making a movie. And with things not changing anytime soon, it’s likely this year’s Sundance was just a preview of the next few years of film.