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SVA at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival: A Preview
January 21, 2020 by Emma Drew
A graphic header for the Sundance Film Festival 2020

The new decade’s first major film festival kicks off next week in Park City, Utah, where every winter the Sundance Film Festival showcases and honors the best in independent filmmaking and emerging talent across genres and from around the world. Since 1985, hundreds of films launched at the prestigious event have gained critical recognition and acclaim; in 2020, the festival presents 118 feature-length narrative and documentary films, representing 27 countries and 44 first-time feature filmmakers. During this year’s run, from January 23 to February 2, several SVA alumni will premiere work, sharing their stories with new audiences as well as vying for awards consideration and widespread distribution.


Sundance’s documentary categories are often full of MFA Social Documentary Film affiliates and this year is no exception. Be Water, from director/producer Bao Nguyen and director of photography Caleb Heller (both MFA 2011 Social Documentary Film), is an incisive, intimate portrait of iconic actor Bruce Lee, who left Hollywood to make movies in Hong Kong after facing rejection and racism in the American film industry. Charting his struggles between two worlds, the film explores questions of identity and representation through the use of rare archival footage, interviews with loved ones and Lee’s own writings. Ben Nimkin (MFA 2011 Social Documentary Film) also worked on sound for the picture.


Told through a personal lens, Us Kids carefully chronicles 18 pivotal months in the development of the March For Our Lives movement following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A coming-of-age story and historical document, the film’s crew includes cinematographer Jenni Morello (MFA 2011 Social Documentary Film), assistant editor and associate producer Caroline Berler (MFA 2017 Social Documentary Film) and producer Lori Cheatle (faculty, MFA Social Documentary Film). Morello also contributed additional cinematography to Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradiseabout the Northern California town that tragically burned down during the 2018 wildfires, and Aggie, on legendary art collector and activist philanthropist Agnes Gund.


Several films in competition this year tackle sociopolitical crises on the international level. Victor Ilyukhin (MFA 2014 Social Documentary) worked as assistant editor on Welcome to Chechnya, which follows a group of activists risking significant peril to confront ongoing anti-LGBTQ+ violence in the repressive Russian republic. Daniela Alatorre (MFA 2015 Social Documentary Film) served as associate producer for artist Ai WeiWei’s Vivos, which details the stories of the students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico, who were brutally attacked—some killed, others abducted and never heard from again—by police forces in 2014. The Trade, for which Andre Arias (MFA 2013 Social Documentary Film) was assistant editor, is am observational take on opioid addiction and the drug trade that illuminates the humanity within this modern American crisis; a forthcoming Showtime docu-series, its first two episodes will premiere at Sundance. And outside of the film programming proper, Still Here, an immersive journalism installation with Al Jazeera, features post-production work from Samatha Quick (BFA 2013 Computer Art, Computer animation and Visual Effects).


On the narrative side of things, Kajillionaire, directed by Miranda July, starring Evan Rachel Wood and featuring VFX work from John Brennick (BFA 2004 Computer Art), is a dark comedy that follows a young woman whose life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist. In the children’s program, Julien Desroches (BFA 2016 Computer Art, Computer animation and Visual Effects) contributed to VFX on Disney’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, from Oscar-winner Tom McCarthy. And Nate Milton’s (BFA 2008 Animation) short Eli, produced by Robert Bohn (BFA 2008 Animation), screens in the animation spotlight. 


Down the street and at the same time as Sundance each year is Slamdance, the festival “by filmmakers, for filmmakers.” There, writer/director Nadia Bedzhanova (MPS 2012 Live Action Short Film) and editor Thomas E. Knight (BFA 2014 Film and Video) will present Beware of Dog, a film about three young adults who experience parallel struggles with mental health and identity.


Check out the full Sundance and Slamdance programs and stay tuned for more news from SVA alumni in Park City.

TIMMY FAILURE: Mistakes Were Made Trailer (2020)

Official Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made Movie Trailer 2020