The folks at Sundance know that only a privileged few can afford to hightail it up to Utah for a week in winter to catch their famed film festival. They’re fully aware that the types of diverse programming they’re developing may not be seen by the people who may benefit most from it. That’s why the Sundance Next Fest — a combo of film, music and artist talks — is so important; it’s the Sundance Film Festival compacted and relocated to the center of Los Angeles, where everyone is welcome.
Michelle Satter, the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program director, says the films in this year’s festival belong in Los Angeles — not because of Hollywood and the industry but because of the city's diverse makeup.
Take, for instance, Gook, from sophomore director Justin Chon. The actor-filmmaker set his L.A. riots drama in 1992 Paramount, exploring racial resentment through the eyes of an African-American family and a Korean-American family at odds. “Justin is from L.A.,” Satter emphasizes. In fact, the story is partially based on Chon’s own experience of the riots.
Then there’s Janicza Bravo’s deliciously bitter comedy Lemon, which was shot here and which drew inspiration from the myriad lost-actor souls who inhabit low-rent black-box theaters to workshop scenes to no end. It’s a dismally funny world that’s often more real than not — which any Angeleno who’s come into contact with one of these accursed actors can attest to. Bravo, who is Afro-Latinx, skewers this world through the lens of both a white Jewish man and a black family.
Satter says Next Fest has taken the liberty of reaching out to specific communities to promote its offerings. That means Korean-Americans in K-town who may not have felt welcome at an indie-film party at the Ace Theatre downtown will, hopefully, be encouraged to come. It seems many in the industry have realized that making and screening socially aware films can only do so much if people can’t actually see them. If more people see them, it’s likely to inspire even more diversity in film. That’s also part of the thinking behind Sundance presenting writer-director Dee Rees (Pariah) with this year’s Vanguard Award.
“The recipients of the Vanguard are artists earlier in their careers that we’re supporting. We not only stand by them but we want to recognize them in a very public way for their vision and voice and want to make that known,” Satter says. Rees’ most recent film, Mudbound, premiered at this past Sundance festival and gets a fall theatrical release. The film was quickly hailed as a pinnacle of achievement, shedding light on the human stories of an African-American community in the wake of WWII. “The Vanguard is meaningful for us, and I know it’s meaningful for Dee. At the core, her stories are human, authentic, emotional, and they’re the stuff that we’re all made of.”
Sundance has actually been offering support to Rees since 2007, when the programming committee saw her short film “Pariah,” which it subsequently helped develop into her groundbreaking feature debut. “It feels huge, and it honestly feels early,” Rees tells me. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been 10 years. But now Sundance is a room of friends. I saw Robert Redford again, and we screened Mudbound, and I got to hug him. It’s huge to be in that kind of company.” Rees is referring not just to Redford but to the past recipients of the Vanguard — Damien Chazelle, Ryan Coogler, Marielle Heller, Benh Zeitlin.
Now Sundance would like to invite Los Angeles to the family. Check out the films and stay for the comedy and musical acts, including Kate Berlant, Sleigh Bells, Kate Micucci, Natasha Leggero, Electric Guest and Joey Bada$$. And definitely hit up the artist talks, where you can see Ava DuVernay chat about the politics of being an Angeleno with Gook director Justin Chon and Larry Wilmore talking about love with Dina directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles.
For the full schedule of events visit sundance.org/festivals/nextfest/lineup.