‘This is the moment’: Sundance kicks off its second online-only festival

Moving Sundance online was ‘very hard’ emotionally, but ‘very easy’ when looking at the COVID-19 data, the festival’s director said.

(Sundance Institute) Sam Green appears in his VR work "32 Sounds," an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival, the second happening mostly in cyberspace rather than Park City, launched Thursday with a study of sound — but most viewers missed out on hearing the voice of Sundance’s founder, Robert Redford.

In a two-minute video message, Redford linked Sundance’s mission to the place where he founded the Sundance Institute in 1981. “Our story shares strong ties to the sacred mountains of Utah,” Redford began, offering an acknowledgement to the Northern Ute Tribe that lived here before Europeans visited the area.

Redford then gave a quick description of the institute’s history of his nonprofit arts group’s history, adding that “Sundance would not exist without the independent spirit and sense of discovery I felt in the shadow of Mount Timpanogos or the welcoming community I found in Park City.”

The festival isn’t playing in Park City this year — after festival officials on Jan. 5 announced it would cancel in-person Utah events because of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Utah and nationwide. The festival would continue, as it did in 2021, on an online platform.

Redford, now 85 and retired from acting, called the online festival “an exciting evolution of the Sundance vision. You are all here to experience the festival’s magic and celebrate this generation’s most innovative storytelling.”

Due to a technical glitch, Redford’s pre-recorded welcome message didn’t play ahead of the festival’s first screening, of documentarian Sam Green’s “32 Sounds,” an exploration of how sounds work on the human brain. The film played on Sundance’s virtual-reality gathering place, The Spaceship.

The welcome video — with messages not only from Redford but from festival director Tabitha Jackson and her new boss, incoming Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente — can be viewed on Sundance’s website, festival.sundance.org.

In an online news conference Thursday morning, Jackson said the festival is about “convergence, coming together, our presence. It’s not how we are together, in person or online, but that we are together in a moment. And this is the moment. This is the moment when the work is revealed. This is the moment where we can discuss the work, in dialogue with each other and the other works in the festival.”

The festival began its 11-day run Thursday evening, with premieres of 10 of the event’s 83 feature-length films that will unspool over Sundance’s online portal.

“We spent a year planning a beautiful hybrid festival, and then needed to pivot away for safety to this fully online iteration,” Jackson said, adding that the word “pivot” is “a trigger word for all our staff now.”

The decision to cancel in-person events “was very hard because of our disappointment of not being able to be back in Park City, expressing the festival fully and being together in person,” Jackson said. “Once we had the data about the public health implications of a festival taking place in Park City, with the levels of transmission of omicron and the impacts on the local infrastructure, it was very easy … to know that it would be irresponsible to continue in person. Also, very easy because we designed the festival to be hybrid, so the online component already existed.”

Festival programmers said this year’s online festival is building on what the 2021 festival accomplished in the same space.

Senior programmer Shari Frilot, who also curates the festival’s New Frontier program of virtual reality and augmented reality artworks, cited the success of The Spaceship, the mixed-reality gathering space that allowed festival attendees from around the world to mingle as if attending the same big party.

“The Spaceship worked beyond our wildest dreams last year,” Frilot said, adding that she stayed up until 2 a.m. most nights during the 2021 festival, talking to people there. “We built it in such a way that it keeps us human. It allows us to interact in the way that we’re practicing humanity now, which is through video chat.”

Sam Green, called “32 Sounds.” Frilot said Green started to experiment with online performance, resulting in a work that “is using technology to present something to a lot of people, but one person at a time.”

Jackson said “32 Sounds” was a perfect opening for the online festival. “There’s an intimacy to it. There’s a beauty to it.”

Information about the films and other programs at the festival, and how to buy tickets, is available at festival.sundance.org.