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Dozens Of Independent Films Showcased At Virtual Sundance Festival


The Sundance Film Festival is all virtual this year. More than 70 independent movies are being screened. Some of them were made during the pandemic. Some of them are about the pandemic. Some of them are just a respite from the pandemic. I talked with film critic Kenneth Turan about his favorites.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: I want to start with dramatic films. And there are two films that have kind of a social context. There's a film called "Passing." It stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. It's set in 1920s in Harlem. It's about two childhood friends who reunite, and one of them is now passing as a white person. And it's about how that influences their relationship, how it influences the kind of whole texture of everyone's life to be passing. It's a really provocative film. It's beautifully done.

The other film, "Judas And The Black Messiah," it's about a real-life event, the killing of Fred Hampton, who was a Black Panther leader in Chicago in 1969 in a police raid. This, again, has very strong acting. Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton. And - but for me, the film belongs to LaKeith Stanfield, who plays a close associate of Fred Hampton's who betrayed him to the police and the FBI. It's a really provocative story. It's troubling. The film has an eye for dramatic events. I enjoyed it a lot.

KING: And then, of course, Sundance is known for excellent documentaries. What are you seeing there that's of interest? What can't we miss?

TURAN: The one that everyone is talking about is called "Summer Of Soul." This is directed by Questlove. Apparently - and very few people knew about this - in 1969, there was a month of weekend concerts in New York called the Harlem Cultural Festival, and the most astonishing group of singers performed, everyone from Nina Simone to Sly and the Family Stone. Footage of these concerts was - sat unknown in a basement for 50 years. It's been found and, you know, put together into a film. There's a duet between Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson doing, you know, the classic gospel song "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." I mean, it just blew me away. It blew the roof off my living room, you know?


KING: You know, Sundance being an independent film festival, you have an opportunity for experimentation. Is there anything particularly notable in the realm of experimental films this year?

TURAN: Well, you know, the film I think that stayed with me the longest is something called "Taming The Garden." I mean, the backstory of this film is bizarre in itself. It turns out that the richest man in Georgia, the former Soviet republic, one of his hobbies is collecting enormous trees. He sends his people throughout the country. They bargain with the owners of these enormous trees. And then crews come in. They remove the trees and take them to a kind of arboreal park that this rich man has put together.

And you see - you know, you watch these trees being uprooted. You hear the villagers who - these trees have been in their lives for generations, and now they're disappearing. What do they feel about it? But also, the surreal element comes in when you see these trees moving. They're often just literally cut out of the ground and put on a raft and floated up the Black Sea. And the sight of these astonishingly old and large trees just floating serenely along the coast of the Black Sea is just - that's a vision I will never forget.

KING: Film critic Kenneth Turan. So it wasn't in person, but it sounds like there were a lot of great films at Sundance this year. Thanks for taking the time. We appreciate it, Ken.

TURAN: Oh, thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.