7 titles to watch at this year's Sundance

With a healthy selection of MENA-infused stories, and one film by and about phenomenal woman Bethann Hardison, this year's Sundance Film Festival, under the new direction of Eugene Hernandez for 2024's edition, has clearly outdone itself.
7 titles to watch at this year's Sundance

This year's Sundance Film Festival will take place January 19–29, in person and online, in Park City, Utah. The event is an annual film festival organized by the Sundance Institute and is the largest independent film festival in the United States. Increasingly, Sundance has seen more and more studio projects premiering on its wintery sidewalks and has become the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives.

As it points out on their website, their "annual program includes dramatic and documentary features, short films, and episodic content. We also host daily filmmaker conversations, panel discussions, and other events. Since 1985, hundreds of films launched at the Festival have gone on to gain critical acclaim and reach new audiences worldwide."

This edition also marks the inaugural one for Sundance new festival director Eugene Hernandez, who famously co-founded trade publication IndieWire. Hernandez comes from his latest gig as New York Film Festival (NYFF) executive director, and succeeds Tabitha Jackson, who announced her departure in June. While his first festival will be in 2024, Hernandez has already joined the Sundance Institute team.

Find below a few projects we have picked, which appeal for their origin but also their message.

Invisible Beauty by Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng

To any self-respecting New Yorker the name Bethann Hardison means something powerful. The former model turned agent and then activist is the woman who knew that Black is beautiful well before the fashion industry acknowledged the truth. She is also the mother of A Different World actor Kadeem Hardison, and a truly kind person, as someone who has met her can confirm. The synopsis of the documentary co-directed by Hardison which will premiere at Sundance in their Premieres section reads like this:

"From walking runway shows alongside Iman to discovering supermodels like Tyson Beckford and mentoring icons like Naomi Campbell, Hardison has been at the epicenter of major representational shifts in fashion. Catalyzing change requires continuous championing, and as the next generation takes the reins, Hardison reflects on her personal journey and the cost of being a pioneer.

In tandem with Frédéric Tcheng (Halston, Dior and I), Bethann Hardison is a force at the helm of her own story. Together, the co-directors trace Hardison’s impact on fashion from runway shows in New York and Paris in the ’70s to roundtables about lack of racial diversity in the early 2000s. Hardison’s audaciousness and candor are inspiring and inviting. Interviews with industry speak to the state of fashion, while friends and family attest to Hardison’s rebellious and ambitious spirit. The film is an absorbing record of Hardison’s accomplishments and a rare contemplation on the life of a radical thinker."

And we can't wait to watch it.

The Persian Version by Maryam Keshavarz

Iranian-American writer, director, and producer Maryam Keshavarz won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2011 with her narrative feature debut Circumstance. This year she returns with her third feature, which will premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. The synopsis for the film reads as follow:

"Coming from two countries at odds with each other, Iranian-American Leila (Layla Mohammadi) strives to find balance and embrace her opposing cultures, while boldly challenging the labels society is so quick to project upon her. When her family reunites in New York City for her father’s heart transplant, Leila navigates her relationships from arm's length in an effort to keep her “real” life separate from her family life. However, when her secret is unceremoniously revealed, so are the distinct parallels between her life and that of her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor).

Punctuated by a bright color palette, snappy comedic relief, and vibrant dance numbers, The Persian Version delivers an honest portrayal of a woman who remains unapologetically herself, blended seamlessly into a heartfelt story about family, belonging, and the undeniable influence of pop music. Following the debut of her first narrative feature film, Circumstance (2011 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic and Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award nominee), writer-director and producer Maryam Keshavarz returns to Sundance with this compelling, intelligent, and timely story of both the Iranian, and the Iranian-American, experience." 

The film will be available to view in person and online.

5 Seasons of Revolution by Lina

Born in Damascus, Lina is an independent filmmaker, cameraperson, and video journalist, known only by her first name. Her most recent work, which she has been filming underground for the past ten years, premieres at Sundance in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

This is the film's official synopsis:

"When the promise of an Arab Spring swept the region and word of protests calling for the Syrian regime to be overthrown reached Damascus, young, independent video reporter Lina and her group of hopeful, cosmopolitan compatriots celebrated the arrival of revolution. In order to avoid detection from the state and its directed and implied violence, Lina learned to embrace multiple identities to survive and continue reporting. As the months turned to years, the heady early days slowly became an ever-present brutal grind, chewing up relationships, futures, and lives.In her debut feature, filmmaker Lina uses a haunting, impressionistic style that mixes diaries, memories, and reflections to share a personal story of living inside a revolution, and the struggle for freedom and autonomy against enemies known and unknown.

5 Seasons of Revolution is a rare chronicle that not only takes you inside the conflicts that exist among a group of comrades whose solidarity is tested, but also the conflicts within, as a storyteller tries to understand what they experienced while negotiating their always-shifting perspective as a witness, participant, and narrator."

The film will be available to view online and in person.

Joonam by Sierra Urich

Vermont-based Persian-American interdisciplinary visual artist and filmmaker Sierra Urich's first feature film is screening at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The synopsis of this impressive doc reads as follows:

"Filmmaker Sierra Urich grew up in rural Vermont, a place and an upbringing far removed from Iran, the homeland of her mother, Mitra, and grandmother, Behjat. Only knowing Iran through family stories, food, and holidays, and with the prospect of travel to the country a seemingly impossible dream, she embarks on a personal quest to make sense of her fractured Iranian identity. Navigating barriers of language and culture (not to mention the complications of geopolitical conflict and displacement), Sierra turns to Mitra and Behjat to construct a deeply moving and sometimes disarmingly funny portrait of three generations of women and their complex relationship to an Iran of the past.

Named for a Farsi term of endearment, Joonam is infused with humor and heart like only a film about family could be. Interrogating family history and memory, including her grandmother’s experiences as a preteen bride and her mother’s rebellious teenage years during the Iranian Revolution, Sierra Urich constructs a rich, personal film that poignantly reflects the experiences of the Iranian diasporic community and speaks to anyone affected by the dislocation that accompanies immigration."

The film is available to view both online and in person.

Passages by Ira Sachs

Ira Sachs is a world-renowned filmmaker, as well as a 2013 Guggenheim fellow and the founding director of Queer|Art, created in 2009 to support LGBTQ+ artists in film, performance, literature, and visual arts. His latest work, Passages screens at Sundance in Premieres. The film sees as producers the Tunisian Saïd Ben Saïd and the Geneva native Michel Merkt. The story reads as follows, as per the film's official Sundance synopsis:

"In contemporary Paris, German filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski) embraces his sexuality through a torrid love affair with a young woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), an impulse that blurs the lines which define his relationship with his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw). When Martin begins an extramarital affair of his own, he successfully gains back his husband’s attention while simultaneously unearthing Tomas’ jealousy. Grappling with contradicting emotions, Tomas must either embrace the confines of his marriage or come to terms with the relationship having run its course.

Director Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue, 2005 U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) returns with his eighth film to screen at Sundance: a grounded examination of the human experience that concentrates on the differences and similarities between physical and emotional attraction and puts forth the question of separating the art from the artist. The elegant cinematography is expertly balanced by deeply complex performances in which Sachs allows his characters to settle into quiet, uncomfortable moments and confront their imperfections. Passages is an intensely intimate piece that refuses to shy away from the messiness of life."

Animalia by Sofia Alaoui

"A woman finds emancipation as aliens land in Morocco" -- I mean what is there not to love in a film which sports that as its tagline! Sofia Alaoui is a French-Moroccan filmmaker, raised between Morocco and China as was featured as one of Screen Daily’s Arab Stars of Tomorrow.

Her feature debut film Animalia premieres at Sundance in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition and the festival's synopsis reads:

"Heavily pregnant Itto looks forward to a day of peace and quiet when she gets her affluent household mostly to herself after her husband, Amine, goes away on business. She’s quickly lost sight of her modest origins and has adapted to her new family’s detached opulence. But when a mysterious state of emergency is declared nationwide, Itto struggles to find help; meanwhile, increasingly ominous events and strange weather phenomena suggest a supernatural presence is nearing. While frantically searching for a way back to Amine, Itto unexpectedly finds emancipation and the possibility of solace in a new world order.

Short Film Grand Jury Prize winner Sofia Alaoui (So What If the Goats Die, 2020) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with her astonishing feature debut, birthing an imaginative sci-fi that explores the unsettling circumstances of a world that no longer seems recognizable. With a hypnotic visual sensibility, Animalia explores the tension between faith and purpose, eroding myths and challenging class prejudice to expose the ways we are all more connected than we know."

The film is available to view both in person and online.

Shayda by Noora Niasari

Iranian women filmmakers are well represented at this year's Sundance and Tehran-born, Australia-raised Noora Niasari is one of the fascinating voices we can't wait to discover at Sundance. Her debut feature Shayda is Executive Produced by none other than Cate Blanchett and reads as follows:

"An Iranian woman living in Australia, Shayda finds refuge in a women’s shelter with her frightened 6-year-old daughter, Mona. Having fled her husband, Hossein, and filed for divorce, Shayda struggles to maintain normalcy for Mona. Buoyed by the approach of Nowruz (Persian New Year), she tries to forge a fresh start with new and unfettered freedoms. But when a judge grants Hossein visitation rights, he reenters their life, stoking Shayda’s fear that he’ll attempt to take Mona back to Iran.

Drawn from personal experiences, Iranian-Australian filmmaker Noora Niasari’s powerful debut feature is a beautifully crafted, poetic vérité portrayal of courage and compassion, anchored by a heart-rending performance by Zar Amir Ebrahimi (2022 Cannes’ best actress award winner for Holy Spider). Ebrahimi captures the vulnerability and confliction, but also the radiant soul of an Iranian woman who boldly reclaims her human rights: to divorce her husband, keep her child, and dress as she chooses."

The film is available in person and online.

There are also great conversations to be held and for the full program, we encourage you to visit the Sundance Film Festival website.

All images courtesy of Sundance and the filmmakers, used with permission.

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