At Sundance, a Glorious Diversity of Voices Breaks Through

February 6, 2020

Onscreen at this year’s festival, you could find poetry, tragedy, comedy and, most important, the range of lived experiences around the world.

PARK CITY, Utah — A runaway bride, wildly rambunctious women and two quietly resolute girls — the Sundance Film Festival is one movie celebration where the so-called second sex consistently comes out on top. Now in its 36th year, the festival has long made room for female filmmakers even when there weren’t all that many. In 1985, its inaugural year, it presented 85 movies, 10 from female directors, about half non-Americans like Lina Wertmüller, one of the few such filmmakers on anyone’s radar back then. Of this year’s 128 features, nearly half are from women. (The festival ends Sunday.)

These numbers are impressive; the movies even more so. At some events, female filmmakers sometimes seem to have been invited simply to check a box, a practice that, however well-intentioned, inevitably suggests that women are second-class talent. This year’s Sundance, by contrast, underscores that when women receive real opportunities — serious money and institutional support — the pool of work expands, bringing new stories, styles and worldviews. For the 2020 edition, you didn’t need to dig to find female talent, make excuses for substandard work or politely yawn through another worthy endeavor. It was right on the screen, blissful and unbound.

In the case of the very different documentaries “Time” and “Saudi Runaway,” the desire to make movies isn’t simply about having a say — getting the chance to pick up a camera and share your vision with the world freely — it is also a matter of life itself. Each documentary centers on an extraordinarily gutsy woman who put her everyday existence on camera, detailing her days and nights in intimate, pointillist detail much like a diarist. Each woman subsequently handed over what she had shot to a female director, who then shaped the material, turning self-expression into collective vision.

Fox Rich, left, and her husband, Rob Richardson, in a scene from “Time.”Credit…via Sundance Institute
One of the most critically admired titles at the festival, Garrett Bradley’s “Time” tells the story of Fox Rich, a Louisiana activist, family woman extraordinaire and impressively dedicated memoirist. (The movie is a coproduction of The New York Times.) Processed in black-and-white, it tracks Rich over her decade-plus efforts to support her six sons and find her sense of a whole self all while advocating for the release of her husband from a punishing 60-year prison sentence. Using both original material and a trove of vivid home videos that Rich shot herself, Bradley creates a portrait of a woman that exponentially expands into a complex chronicle of a marriage, a family, a community and finally a country.

“Saudi Runaway” is a starkly complementary story of incarceration, liberation and self-determination. Directed by the Swiss-German filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures, “Runaway” is the nail-biting chronicle of a fearless young Saudi — known only as Muna — as she covertly plans to leave the country for good. Using a couple of smartphones, Muna clandestinely serves as her own dauntless cinematographer, shooting herself, her family and, in fugitive glimpses, the larger world. It’s a perilous activity given women’s traditionally subordinate status there, and transforms selfie-style narcissism into radical resistance. (The movie was shot before new rights were granted to women.) As her plans solidify, “Saudi Runaway” progressively resembles a thriller, one filled with harrowingly close calls and an exhilarating countdown.

The increased presence of women behind the camera at Sundance marks a crucial shift, given that not long ago the more celebrated women at the event were performers like Parker Posey and Lili Taylor (here playing a mom in the clichéd “The Evening Hour”). For years, women’s roles at this festival seemed best symbolized by the “Sundance It Girl,” a dubious honor that stretches at least back to Andie MacDowell, a star of “sex, lies, and videotape.” That’s the 1989 Steven Soderbergh game-changer that helped kick-start an era in indie cinema, one that often proved as sexist as Hollywood and just as blindingly white.

The number of African-American female filmmakers in this year’s lineup offered further evidence of what seems to be a significant, perhaps lasting sea change. A perfect example, and a highlight of the U.S. dramatic competition, “The 40-Year-Old Version” hasn’t secured distribution but deserves the widest release possible. Written and directed by the playwright Radha Blank — who also stars — it traces the rebirth of an artist with lacerating insight, a great deal of warmth and terrific comic timing. It was shot in black-and-white, a visual choice that nods to iconic New York films, most instructively from Woody Allen and Spike Lee. Here, Blank makes the city and its promise her own from the first scene to a last expressive burst of rapturous color.

The colors pop bright and hard in “Zola,” a kaleidoscopically hued, periodically discomforting, comically ribald adventure from Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”). Narrated by the title character (played by the game newcomer Taylour Paige), the story unwinds in extended flashback, with Zola detailing an improbable, ridiculous, often funny and sometimes dangerous adventure involving another woman, Jessica (the reliably bold Riley Keough), a stripper with execrable judgment. Bravo skims the surface with impressive control and a great deal of visual wit and, every so often — as with a shot of a Confederate flag — gestures toward deeper, unrealized ideas. (The movie is based on an epic, rather more grim Twitter thread.)

A different odyssey is undertaken in Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which tracks a teenager, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who travels to New York City to obtain an abortion. With unforced realism, a minimum of music, spare dialogue and no histrionics, Hittman nicely sketches in Autumn’s home life — her mom dresses the kids and the dad both — but mostly concentrates on Autumn and her relationship with the cousin (Talia Ryder) who accompanies her. By refusing to grandstand, Hittman, who wrote and directed, has made the most moving, cleareyed American fiction movie about a woman’s right to abortion since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982).

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s much-publicized documentary “On the Record” looks at several women — notably Drew Dixon, a music executive — who have accused the music giant Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct (allegations he denies). Much of the movie includes interviews, including with writers like Joan Morgan, who puts the personal into larger context. The women on camera make their case strongly; they also legitimize the documentary, which had come to the festival tainted by criticism from Oprah Winfrey, a former executive producer, who cut ties to it, citing creative differences. The filmmakers make some unfortunate choices, particularly in some staged scenes, but the movie belongs to these women, whose truth feels unassailable.

Time and again at the festival, you saw real diversity in both the snowy streets and in the theaters, where the American experience in all its complexity was being told and retold in movie after movie. Proof of that came in two of my favorite selections from the 2020 edition, the dramas “Minari” and “Farewell Amor.” To a degree, we have seen these stories before or at least think that we have: each turns on a hardworking family of ostensible outsiders trying to find their place in a not always welcoming country.

In “Minari” (written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung), the family is Korean-American and moves from California to Arkansas to pursue the father’s dream of farming vegetables. In “Farewell Amor” (from the writer-director Ekwa Msangi), an Angolan refugee brings his wife and daughter to America after a long, anguished separation, moving them into a crowded Brooklyn apartment. Each movie solicits well-earned tears and turns on a profound crisis that can only be solved when the family pulls together, unity that works as a welcome and, in its underlying optimism, deeply moving metaphor for life in what too often feels like the Disunited States of America.

Correction: Jan. 31, 2020
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of features in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is 128, not 118.


Manohla Dargis

Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books.