Discovering Up-and-Coming Artists - The Magic of Sundance 2023
by Alex Billington
January 31, 2023
Why go to film festival if not to discover some of the best up-and-coming filmmakers? The 2023 Sundance Film Festival has just wrapped and after screening over 100 new films. Was it a success? Absolutely. The festival returned to an in-person event in the snowy city of Park City, Utah after two years of virtual festivals during the pandemic. Sundance is famous for being the place where directors like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made their mark, breaking into the industry with their first indie films. In recent years they've also been responsible for launching Damien Chazelle (Whiplash in 2014), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station in 2013), Dee Rees (Mudbound in 2017), Ari Aster (Hereditary in 2018), Lulu Wang (The Farewell in 2019), and Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You in 2018). At Sundance 2023, the festival decided to feature a selection of mostly unknown, first-time filmmakers and it paid off. This is one of their best line-ups in years, with an especially strong selection of high quality indie films from a new generation of artists.
In the announcement of their 2023 line-up, Sundance's PR Director Tammie Rosen stated: "The slate is full of bold discoveries from new directors and new films from familiar names. There will be things that jump out at you immediately but with most of the program world premieres and about a quarter of the program from first-time filmmakers a lot will be new. Lots of well-known actors as well as producers working in the independent space." Instead of featuring films from filmmakers many of us known already, they decided to focus more on these first-timers. This took Sundance back to their early days, when almost everything they would show was from people making their first feature film. Throughout the 2010s, the focus at Sundance shifted to their "Premieres" category with many known filmmakers unveiling their latest films. This lead to many parties and non-festival events and celebrities taking the attention away from the rest of the selection. The festival even tried to introduce a "Focus on Film" campaign for a few years, reminding folks it's about the films, not the celebs/parties. I'm glad they've returned to their roots as a festival about discovery again.
Even if all of the films I watched at Sundance this year weren't exactly my favorites of the festival, I am still in awe of most of them anyway. So many new filmmakers are now "on my radar" and I hope this means the film industry will give them more opportunities and allow them to flourish. My highlights of 2023: writer / director A.V. Rockwell from A Thousand and One making her feature directorial debut. She also won the top Grand Jury Prize for her film, which impressed me more than almost any other this year. Actor Lio Mehiel from Mutt, directed by Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, a beautiful film about a life in the day of a trans man and his struggles. Filmmaker Noora Niasari of Shayda making her feature directorial debut, along with actress Zar Amir-Ebrahimi who already broke out with Holy Spider last year but continues to prove how talented she is in this. Director Charlotte Regan of Scrapper making her feature directorial debut with a lovely little film starring Lola Campbell & Harris Dickinson. Director Adura Onashile of Girl making her feature directorial debut - it's also premiering at the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland kicking off this week.
There's a few more: filmmaker Raven Jackson of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt also making her feature directorial debut with a gorgeous, poetic film that reminds of early Terrence Malick. Many critics have been raving about this one, expect to hear more about Raven in the coming years. Director Celine Song of Past Lives making her feature directorial debut with a film that is already being talked about as one of the best of 2023 - it's premiering at the Berlin Film Festival next (and I won't be surprised if it ends up winning the Golden Bear prize there). Director Chloe Domont of Fair Play making her feature directorial debut - I wrote my glowing review: "it's time to step back and hand over the keys to Hollywood to Chloe Domont. It's her world now." Director Nida Manzoor of Polite Society making her feature directorial debut with a kick ass British-Pakistani action comedy film (here's a trailer). Director Raine Allen Miller of Rye Lane making her feature directorial debut, along with actors David Jonsson & Vivian Oparah. One critic I talked to said it's one of his favorite romantic comedies of all-time, it's that good. Director Anna Hints of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, who made one of the most unique and moving documentaries that's playing this year.
I also want to highlight director Roger Ross Williams, who made his first narrative feature this year with Cassandro, which completely won me over. I already raved about his Sundance 2016 film Life, Animated (here's my review), so I've been a fan of Roger for a while already, but his Sundance 2023 offering certifies that he's a very capable & wonderful filmmaker who can tell stories so beautifully. (Cassandro also contains one of Gael García Bernal's best performances of his career.) All of these filmmakers (and even more that I haven't named in here) deserve to break out after being featured by Sundance, which means giving them a shot at making more films, as this is only the start of their careers. Every talented filmmaker out there will tell you it's even harder to get their second feature film made. Sundance is a launching platform for artists because it not only provides support & encouragement, it allows their work to be seen by a large number of movie lovers. Many of the people who attended Sundance in Utah this year work in the film industry, and this exposure gives all of these filmmakers a chance to gain recognition and meet others who can help them.
In addition to discovering talented filmmakers, Sundance's superb selection (year after year) also provides an opportunity to discover real people through documentaries made about them. These doc films give new life to people lost in time, including feminist mastermind Shere Hite in the doc The Disappearance of Shere Hite (here's my review), and the exquisite poet Nikki Giovanni in the doc Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. This year they also screened a few new biopic documentaries including Little Richard: I Am Everything, Judy Blume Forever, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, and Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV (I didn't have a chance to see these four films yet but have heard good things about all of them). There's almost always something to watch at festivals that is "right up your alley", as they say, in terms of being a story about someone or something that is exactly what you're interested in. For me, that includes revolutionaries and progressive thinkers and artists and innovative people who made waves in the world, even if we don't hear about them much anymore. I can't wait for The Disappearance of Shere Hite to eventually release, because Hite needs this second chance to be re-discovered and celebrated.
Returning home from Sundance 2023 after two weeks in Utah, thinking back over the films I saw and the memorable moments, I'm reminded why I adore going to film festivals year after year. It really is all about discovery. It's this chance to see all these films, learn about all of these artists (in front of and behind the screen), before the marketing and PR steps in and controls how and why we learn about them. We are given the freedom to step in and watch a film that only a few other people have seen before this week, and if it leaves a strong impression, then we get to go back out into the world and talk about all these films and these filmmakers. When there's a line-up as strong as this in 2023, it's even more exciting because I want to come home and spend the next 12 months shouting these names, grabbing everyone I see and exclaiming: "You HAVE to see this film! We NEED to support this director!" We owe them our attention, and they deserve to have the support and championing required to continue to make more films. Let's celebrate their excellence.
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