Art vs. commerce isn’t necessarily an either/or proposition. The two aren’t always at odds. Sometimes both can peacefully co-exist, if not flourish. And a couple prime examples of such flourishing emerged front and center at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival.
Consider CODA, director and screenwriter Sian Heder’s film about the hearing child of deaf adults who is trying to realize a life apart from her family. CODA won top honors at Sundance--the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in Drama, the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, the Audience Award in U.S. Drama, and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. Balancing the art is the commerce aspect as CODA was bought by Apple TV+ for some $25 million, setting a Sundance record.
Meanwhile Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson made his directorial debut with Summer of Soul (....Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which reportedly fetched more than $12 million, breaking the documentary sales record that was set last year at Sundance when Apple and A24 acquired Boys State. Summer of Soul just won the Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in Documentary. Buying the film were Searchlight Pictures and Disney General Entertainment’s BIPOC Creator initiative, led by Tara Duncan. The acquisition is for worldwide rights, with the film set for theatrical release as well as exclusively streaming on Hulu in the U.S. and internationally on Star and Star+.
“It’s rare to find a film that captures the breadth of the Black American experience and also makes you want to dance, testify and sing out loud,” stated Duncan. “Ahmir has gifted us with a brilliantly crafted, nearly forgotten gem from our history, and we are honored to help bring Summer Of Soul to audiences.”
Summer of Soul takes us to 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, when a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It had never been seen--until now. Summer of Soul is a stunning unearthed treasure destined to become a pillar of American music and African American history. Thompson bring us this transporting documentary—part concert film, part historical record—about an epic event that radiated the wholesale reevaluation of Black history, culture, fashion and music. This rich tapestry deftly incorporates interviews with historic personalities like Harlem “Ambassador” Musa Jackson, with an unforgettable musical revue that includes interviews and performances by varied artists like B.B. King, Cal Tjader, The Harlem Calypso Band, Hugh Masekela, Mongo Santamaria, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone among many others, as well as many rare gems, such as a Stevie Wonder drum solo and a duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Summer Of Soul shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music.
Summer of Soul was produced by Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein with RadicalMedia serving as creative and production partners. Executive producers are Jen Isaacson, Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Jody Allen, Ruth Johnston, Rocky Collins, Jannat Gargi, Beth Hubbard, Davis Guggenheim, Laurene Powell Jobs, Jeffrey Lurie, Marie Therese Guirgis, David Barse, Ron Eisenberg, Sheila Johnson and Questlove. Jonathan Silberberg and Nicole Stott are co-executive producers. The film is a Vulcan Productions Production in association with Concordia Studio, Play/Action Pictures, LarryBilly Productions, and produced by Mass Distraction Media and RadicalMedia.
“I’m so honored to be allowed to manifest my dreams after all this time,” said Questlove. “This is truly an honor. Summer Of Soul is a passion project and to have it resonate with so many people on so many levels has been incredibly rewarding. I am very happy to begin this new chapter with the team at Searchlight/Disney/Hulu and look forward to sharing the important story behind the film with audiences worldwide.
“It was a joy to support Ahmir and bring this story to life,” said Jon Kamen, executive producer, CEO RadicalMedia. “We’re incredibly proud of the reaction the film has gotten from audiences and the Sundance Grand Jury, and we’re excited to share this story with viewers across the globe.”
Summer of Soul adds filmmaker to the credentials of Questlove, known as a drummer, DJ, producer, bestselling author and member of influential hip-hop group The Roots. He is the musical director for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where his Roots crew serves as house band. Beyond that, this four-time Grammy Award-winning musician’s reputation has landed him musical directing positions with everyone from D’Angelo to Eminem to Jay-Z. Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots have executive produced the acclaimed documentary series Hip-Hop: The Songs The Shook America on AMC under their production company, Two One Five Entertainment, which recently announced a first-look deal with Universal Television to develop scripted and non-scripted programming. Questlove will serve as executive producer for the upcoming documentary, The League, centered on the tumultuous journey of Negro league baseball.
Additionally, Questlove served as the executive music producer and composer on the A&E miniseries Roots. He also scored Chris Rock’s film Top Five and co-produced the Grammy Award-winning “Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton.”
Most recently, Questlove co-starred in Disney/Pixar’s critically acclaimed animated feature Soul which debuted in December 2020.
As a CODA--the abbreviation for Child of Deaf Adult--Ruby (portrayed by Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents. Viewers experience Ruby’s family through sign language. While the silence is a new experience for the audience, the family dynamics are not--love, laughter, friction, drama, being at odds yet also being at one.
Jones heads a cast which includes deaf actors Tony Kotsur, Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin (the only deaf actor to win an Oscar, back in 1987 for her lead role in Children of a Lesser God).
In its own way, like Summer of Soul, CODA celebrates diversity. But in making its case for diversity in Hollywood, CODA ventures into territory beyond race and gender. Often non-disabled actors are cast as characters with disabilities. What about deaf actors? CODA showcases their viability and artistry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four U.S. adults--some 61 million people--has a disability that affects major life activities. A 2017 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that just 2.7% of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies in 2016 were disabled, showing a huge discrepancy between Hollywood and reality.
There has been progress on this front. Recently NBCUniversal committed to include actors with disabilities in auditions for each new film and television production. This covers projects by the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Universal Studios Group, NBC, and the Peacock streaming service.
CBS Entertainment made a similar pledge in 2019.
CODA made an eloquent case for such inclusion at Sundance. The film was produced by Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, Patrick Wachsberger, with Ardavan Safaee and Sarah Borch-Jacobsen serving as executive producers.
Heder’s writing, producing and directing exploits span the likes of Orange is the New Black, Little America and the feature Tallulah which debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Among the other films to score acclaim and generate biz at Sundance were Flee, Cryptozoo and Jockey.
Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize went to Flee, a hand-drawn animated film about a refugee directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and executive produced by Riz Ahmed (an Oscar contender for his performance in Sound of Metal) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. NEON, the shop that brought Oscar-winner Parasite to the U.S., acquired Flee for distribution.
Flee tells the extraordinary true story of a man, Amin, on the verge of marriage which compels him to reveal his hidden past for the first time. A secret he has been hiding for over twenty years threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself. He recounts his dramatic journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan to Denmark. Told mostly through animation, Flee weaves together a stunning tapestry of images and memories to tell the deeply affecting and original story of a young man grappling with his traumatic past in order to find his true self and the meaning of home.
Meanwhile writer-director Dash Shaw picked up the NEXT Innovator award for his animated fantasy Cryptozoo, which Magnolia acquired for release. Cryptozoo debuted in Sundance’s Next section. The fantasy feature, for which Jane Samborski served as animation director, follows a group of Cryptozookeepers who try to capture a Baku (a dream-eating hybrid creature of legend) They begin to wonder if they should display these rare beasts in the confines of a cryptozoo, or if these mythical creatures should remain hidden and unknown.
Cryptozoo continues a decades-long track record at Sundance for Washington Square Films, one of the production companies behind the film. The voice cast for Cryptozoo includes Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare and Grace Zabriskie.
And Sony Pictures Classics acquired worldwide rights to Jockey, which won a Sundance U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Actor in recognition of Clifton Collins Jr.’s performance. Collins portrays seasoned horse jockey Jackson who has weathered decades of races on the riding circuit, but he now finds himself facing what could be his last season as his health deteriorates. With the help of Ruth (Molly Parker) and a promising new horse, Jackson starts to prepare for the upcoming championship. His plans take a left turn when a budding young jockey (Moisés Arias) shows up and claims to be his son. Caught between yearning for a connection and uncertainty about his own future, Jackson confronts difficult questions regarding his legacy.
Shot at a live racetrack and with a keen eye, Jockey gives us an achingly personal window into a world we’ve never seen up close before, where fortunes are flipped upside down from one moment to the next and the freedom of riding comes at a grueling physical price. Collins delivers an intimately layered performance guided by director Clint Bentley.
In addition to the honors received by CODA, Summer of Soul, Flee, Cryptozoo and Jockey, here’s a rundown of major award winners at Sundance 2021.
GRAND JURY PRIZE
The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to: Blerta Basholli, for Hive / Kosovo, Switzerland, Macedonia, Albania (Director and Screenwriter: Blerta Basholli, Producers: Yll Uka, Valon Bajgora, Agon Uka) — Fahrije’s husband has been missing since the war in Kosovo. She sets up her own small business to provide for her kids, but as she fights against a patriarchal society that does not support her, she faces a crucial decision: to wait for his return, or to continue to persevere. Cast: Yllka Gashi, Çun Lajçi, Aurita Agushi, Kumrije Hoxha, Adriana Matoshi, Kaona Sylejmani.
The Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented to: Blerta Basholli, for Hive / Kosovo, Switzerland, Macedonia, Albania (Director and Screenwriter: Blerta Basholli, Producers: Yll Uka, Valon Bajgora, Agon Uka).
Also won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize mentioned above.
The Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented to: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, for Writing With Fire / India (Directors and Producers: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh) — In a cluttered news landscape dominated by men, emerges India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women. Armed with smartphones, Chief Reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions on the frontlines of India’s biggest issues and within the confines of their own homes, redefining what it means to be powerful.
The Audience Award: NEXT was presented to: Marion Hill, for Ma Belle, My Beauty / U.S.A., France (Director and Screenwriter: Marion Hill, Producers: Ben Matheny, Kelsey Scult, Marion Hill) — A surprise reunion in southern France reignites passions and jealousies between two women who were formerly polyamorous lovers. Cast: Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper, Lucien Guignard, Sivan Noam Shimon.
DIRECTING, SCREENWRITING & EDITING AWARDS
The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to: Natalia Almada, for Users / U.S.A., Mexico (Director: Natalia Almada, Producers: Elizabeth Lodge Stepp, Josh Penn) — A mother wonders, will my children love their perfect machines more than they love me, their imperfect mother? She switches on a smart-crib lulling her crying baby to sleep. This perfect mother is everywhere. She watches over us, takes care of us. We listen to her. We trust her.
The Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented to: Hogir Hirori, for Sabaya / Sweden (Director and Screenwriter: Hogir Hirori, Producers: Antonio Russo Merenda, Hogir Hirori) — With just a mobile phone and a gun, Mahmud, Ziyad and their group risk their lives trying to save Yazidi women and girls being held by ISIS as Sabaya (abducted sex slaves) in the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, Al-Hol in Syria.
The Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented to: Blerta Basholli, for Hive / Kosovo, Switzerland, Macedonia, Albania (Director and Screenwriter: Blerta Basholli, Producers: Yll Uka, Valon Bajgora, Agon Uka).
Also won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award mentioned above.
The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to: Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, for On the Count of Three / U.S.A. (Director: Jerrod Carmichael, Screenwriters: Ari Katcher, Ryan Welch, Producers: David Carrico, Adam Paulsen, Tom Werner, Jake Densen, Ari Katcher, Jimmy Price) — Two guns. Two best friends. And a pact to end their lives when the day is done. Cast: Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, Henry Winkler.
The Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to: editors Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno, for Homeroom / U.S.A. (Director: Peter Nicks, Producers: Peter Nicks, Sean Havey) — Following the class of 2020 at Oakland High School in a year marked by seismic change, exploring the emotional world of teenagers coming of age against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world.
SPECIAL JURY AWARDS
A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker was presented to: Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, for Cusp / U.S.A. (Directors: Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt, Producers: Zachary Luke Kislevitz, Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt) — In a Texas military town, three teenage girls confront the dark corners of adolescence at the end of a fever dream summer.
A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Nonfiction Experimentation was presented to: Theo Anthony, for All Light, Everywhere / U.S.A. (Director: Theo Anthony, Producers: Riel Roch-Decter, Sebastian Pardo, Jonna McKone) — An exploration of the shared histories of cameras, weapons, policing and justice. As surveillance technologies become a fixture in everyday life, the film interrogates the complexity of an objective point of view, probing the biases inherent in both human perception and the lens.
A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Vérité Filmmaking was presented to: Camilla Nielsson, for President / Denmark, U.S.A., Norway (Director: Camilla Nielsson, Producers: Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joslyn Barnes) — Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. The leader of the opposition MDC party, Nelson Chamisa, challenges the old guard ZANU-PF led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “The Crocodile.” The election tests both the ruling party and the opposition – how do they interpret principles of democracy in discourse and in practice?
A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Impact for Change was presented to: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, for Writing With Fire / India (Directors and Producers: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh).
Writing With Fire also won The Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary as mentioned above.
A World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Acting was presented to: Jesmark Scicluna, for Luzzu / Malta (Director and Screenwriter: Alex Camilleri, Producers: Rebecca Anastasi, Ramin Bahrani, Alex Camilleri, Oliver Mallia) — Jesmark, a struggling fisherman on the island of Malta, is forced to turn his back on generations of tradition and risk everything by entering the world of black market fishing to provide for his girlfriend and newborn baby. (A luzzu is a traditionalMaltese fishing boat.) Cast: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna. Luzzu marks Camilleri’s feature directorial debut. He cast non-actors for the film, including Scicluna.
A World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision was presented to: Baz Poonpiriya, for One for the Road / China, Hong Kong, Thailand (Director: Baz Poonpiriya, Screenwriters: Baz Poonpiriya, Nottapon Boonprakob, Puangsoi Aksornsawang, Producer: Wong Kar Wai) — Boss is a consummate ladies’ man, a free spirit and a bar owner in NYC. One day, he gets a surprise call from Aood, an estranged friend who has returned home to Thailand. Dying of cancer, Aood enlists Boss’ help to complete a bucket list – but both are hiding something. Cast: Tor Thanapob, Ice Natara, Violette Wautier, Aokbab Chutimon, Ploi Horwang, Noon Siraphun. World Premiere
SHORT FILM AWARDS
Jury prizes for short filmmaking were awarded at the same ceremony.
The Short Film Grand Jury Prize was awarded to Lizard / United Kingdom (Director: Akinola Davies, Jr., Screenwriter: The Davies Brothers).
The Short Film Jury Award: U.S. Fiction was awarded to The Touch of the Master’s Hand / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Gregory Barnes.
The Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction was awarded to Bambirak / U.S.A., Germany (Director and Screenwriter: Zamarin Wahdat).
The Short Film Jury Award: Nonfiction was awarded to Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma / U.S.A., Germany, France, Italy (Directors and Screenwriters: Topaz Jones, rubberband.).
The Short Film Jury Award: Animation was awarded to Souvenir Souvenir / France (Director and Screenwriter: Bastien Dubois).
A Short Film Special Jury Award for Acting was presented to Wiggle Room / U.S.A. (Directors and Screenwriters: Sam Guest, Julia Baylis).
A Short Film Special Jury Award for Screenwriting was awarded to The Criminals / France, Romania, Turkey (Director and Screenwriter: Serhat Karaaslan).