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Digital Film 'Festivaling': Sundance

,, | February 3, 2021 | By

Family Theater Productions is proud to be a part of the Windrider Forum, which annually opens up the conversation about faith at the yearly Sundance International Film Festival.

Every year a contingent of FTP staffers bundles up and flies from Los Angeles to Sundance in Park City, Utah (running this year from Jan. 28-Feb. 3).

The Windrider Forum also makes up an important part of the week: an ecumenical gathering theology and film students who watch Sundance films and then attend Q/A sessions with some of the filmmakers. On the opening evening, the Forum hosts a student short film showcase. Those that have been awarded there often go on to win Academy Awards.

In 2021, the Sundance Film Festival moved online, with some in-person events scattered throughout the United States. I planned to attend some events here in nearby Pasadena, but a continued shelter-in-place scuttled those plans. However, attending online leads me to believe the festival received a “catholic baptism” of sorts…


Director of Sundance Tabitha Jackson used our COVID reality as a chance to reimagine the festival. Once the domain of the well off, the festival streams the movies online at the low price of $15 per film.

In 2020, one of the last international gatherings before shutdown I remember in person films averaging $60 a pop, not to mention the long waits in line. So, Jackson democratized the event to the masses with a deeper consideration for the poor, who can’t fly to a remote part of America and pay exorbitant hotel fees.

The “monastic” schedule

I purchased a single day pass for my day off at the parish. The pass allots for as many as six movies to be screened in a single day. The programmers obviously know streaming tendencies trend to binging.

However, this variation on a theme does not compromise a core principle of Sundance, that viewers watch first-run independent films, together. Participants have a three-hour window to begin the film, knowing there’s others simultaneously enjoying the virtual experience too.

Filling out my schedule I laughed at how it looked like the Liturgy of the Hours of an abbey or cloister. With movies at 9a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m, I kept my breviary close in case I wanted to multi-task by praying Lauds, mid-day prayer, Vespers, Compline and the Office of Readings.


Two films, one domestic (CODA, see also, below) and one from Malta (Luzzu) portray the struggles of the fishing industry. I found both films took a conservative approach to the economics, pitting overweening governments as the antagonists.

The American film encourages the American entrepreneurial spirit, as the Rossi family, stymied by local regulation, decides to cut out the middle man and sell fresh fish directly from their dock.

The European Union, never shown visually, accurately forms the remote, cold, inefficient bureaucracy dictating business on the Mediterranean islands. Luzzu depicts beautiful Catholic visuals (a boat blessing the best among them) while speaking the truth: an individual fisherman’s dreams crushed under the weight of a supranational government.


Clip of Luzzu from Cineuropa

The Mysteries

One of the greatest “I was there” pop-culture moments of my life was watching the world premiere of Burden during my first year attending the festival. IMDB mentions a five-minute standing ovation following its Sundance premiere.

The redemptive true story of former KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) led me to laugh, cry and yes, stand up and cheer.

This year the accolades go to CODA, the coming-of-age story of Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) the only able-hearing member of a deaf family. Great Sundance movies remind me of the late Jim Valvano’s (North Carolina State basketball coach) exhortation to laugh, to think and be moved to tears each day.

The family at the heart of CODA made me laugh at their very crass style of humor. I caught myself crying several times throughout the visceral drama. And I left the film pondering the ways I may have overlooked those with disabilities in ministry.

The most ambitious of Sundance films, then are not those that satisfy as just comedy or drama but somehow incorporate them all, as real life reflects all mysteries: joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous.

Click here for the full Sundance results. CODA took home the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, plus a record-breaking $25M distribution deal from Apple Studios; Luzzu just earned a Jury Award for Acting for Jesmark Scicluna, but it did score a distributor, Memento Films International.

Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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