Media Mindfulness Blog

CODA and other innovative filmmaking: A Sundance Festival review

CODA and other innovative filmmaking: A Sundance Festival review

The Sundance Film Festival brings together some of the most creative and innovative independent storytellers of film from all over the world. It harbors generative questioning about the human condition and issues that challenge our individual world views. Since it was offered this year in-person but also virtually, I was able to participate through the Windrider Film Forum, a work of the Windrider Institute and a sanctioned event during the Sundance Film Festival. Windrider believes in engaging in cultural dialogue right as it takes place in the “storehouses of culture,” which is in the value-defining medium of film. 


This year’s festival presented some highly creative personalities and original stories that wowed audiences. Here is a quick review of some of the best films I encountered at the festival that prove that there are always compelling stories to tell that have never been explored before. 


Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


This year’s big winner, CODA, defied the odds and delved into storytelling through the perspective of the deaf, using deaf actors for a more authentic presentation. The name stands for “child of deaf adults.” Director/writer Sian Herder focuses on the one hearing member of a deaf family, Ruby, brilliantly played by break-out artist Emilia Jones. It is at once hilariously funny and emotionally wrenching. As a 17-year-old, Ruby goes to high school while also helping her family in their Gloucester, MA fishing business. Every morning before school she goes out fishing on their boat with her father (Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) while also being the interpreter for business transactions, which her mother (Marlee Matlin) manages. Doting on a cute guy at school she joins the choir just because he does and discovers a gift she kept buried, an ironic ability for a member of a deaf family. 

I especially enjoyed the quirky yet tough-minded music teacher, Dr. Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez) who challenges Ruby's fears of singing with his humorous over-the-top dramatics. As her musical ability develops, Ruby must make a choice between the obligation of assisting her family or following her dreams. It is probably one of the most emotionally charged films I have seen in a long time that shows the beauty of family as essential to our growth as genuine human beings. At once authentic and transformative, this film defies assumptions about the deaf community and their ability to not only get by but thrive in this world. 


Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


One of the few films to come out of the small country of Malta, this beautifully challenging story by Alex Camilleri centers on the life of Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a poor Maltese fisherman, who struggles to provide for his wife and ill newborn son in an industry taken over by corporate-run fisheries, ruthless black market demands, and diminishing harvests. His colorful generations old luzzu springs a leak and puts his livelihood at risk. As he repairs the boat that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather used, Jesmark seeks out work through odd jobs while avoiding the corporate fisheries, which out of desperation he cannot for long. While working there he discovers the illegal fish trade and offers his services to make more money.

The cost to care for his family surmounts when economic conditions demand the surrender of his family’s traditional livelihood, love of the sea, and his moral integrity. The baptism of his child seems to symbolically and simultaneously challenge his choices while also offering a new start on life. This film presents the gut-retching decisions of those whose traditional livelihood disappears as a result of greedy economic powers and dwindling ecosystems. 


Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


One of my favorite films of the festival is an evocative story by acclaimed actress Robin Wright in her directorial debut. She plays the role of Edee a middle-aged woman whose world crashes in on her after a horrible tragedy. Suffering from an existential crisis of grief and personal identity, she can no longer interact with other human beings and leaves behind her doting sister to live alone in a cabin in the wild Rocky Mountains. This idea of getting away from everything into the wiles of nature to find oneself is a very compelling and popular concept that surfaces in current storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. Though economics doesn’t seem to play a part in her paring down, Edee leaves behind even her car, phone and any electronics to make her way alone in the wild. 

When winter comes, her unpreparedness leaves her near death from starvation and hyperthermia. Providentially, Miguel (Demian Bichir), a wandering hunter, discovers her bringing her not only life but also survival skills. Through him, Edee begins notice things more and finds the ability to interact with other human beings, while he receives grace in their friendship. Through the gorgeous cinematography and breathtaking landscapes, this film with its captivating narrative offers hope to all who have suffered loss and pain. Nothing can take away grief, but we can learn to live and love again through the healing balm of the natural world and the gift that is each human person. 


Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


Winning the Special Jury Award for Best Acting, Clifton Collins Jr. plays the seasoned horse jockey Jackson who because of weariness and physical injuries comes upon his last racing season with his partner Ruth, (Molly Parker) and a new horse. Filmmaker Clint Bentley takes us behind the scenes into the world of horse racing from the perspective of the jockeys, offering an authentic view from his own personal experience. Though freedom on the track impels the jockeys to constantly enter these painfully competitive races, they do so at the heavy expense to their bodies, which we learn about from one of their therapy sessions. The cocky and arrogant Jackson readies for his next win just as a young jockey, Gabriel (Moises Arias) confronts him with the news that he is his son. At first appalled and disbelieving, Jackson relents and mentors Gabriel in the sport he so loves.

The trials that we encounter can often be the catalyst for confronting the importance of relationships in our lives. Faced with his own mortality, Jackson rethinks the priority of racing, as we all must when death draws near. This made me reflect on the Christian concept of memento mori, that is, remembering our death, as a way of keeping us focused on eternity so as to make choices for our lasting good. Too often in life we concentrate on making our way in the world that we forget about the need we have as social beings for relationships that are authentic and lasting—selfless giving in love—that benefit us now and in eternity.


Courtesy of Mass Distraction Media

SUMMER OF SOUL (…Or, when the revolution could not be televised)

The same summer of the legendary music festival near Woodstock, New York there was a series of concerts held in Harlem attended by more than 300,000 people over the entire music series. The Harlem Cultural Festival, what is now known as “Black Woodstock,” was filmed by producer Hal Tulchin and largely unseen except for a few hour-long specials aired on Channel 5 (now FOX) at 10:30pm Saturday evenings at 10:30pm July-August 1969. Receiving the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury and Audience awards for Best Documentary, this film brought to light the growing response to civil rights within the black community and beyond. Sitting in a basement for nearly 50 years, the original footage was unearthed by music producer-musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in his directorial debut. This festival took place only 100 miles from Woodstock and featured some of the best black artists of the century including an amazing drum solo by a young Stevie Wonder and a breakout solo by Mavis Staples when the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, turned over the mic to her last minute. Gospel, the film points out, was the heart and soul of black America and that was represented in the Queen herself, Mahalia. 

This festival brought together the sounds of Jazz, Blues, with an appearance by B.B. King, Gospel and Soul. It brought out the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin from the Temptations and Sly and the Family Stone, who also appeared at Woodstock. This was the era of Black Power where the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. What made it so unique was that it featured artists from East Harlem with the Puerto Rican and Cuban musical sounds, as well as South African through Hugh Masekala who introduced African style and what it meant to be African in America at that time. Thompson’s testament to this historical event brings out the soul in everyone who listens, for music has the power to bring us together and to heal our differences. 


More to come in a Part 2 segment of Sundance Film Festival 2021 highlights.



You need to login in order to comment

Subscribe to Blog


Meet Jesus at the Movies!