Sundance Film Festival wrapped up over the weekend with an awards ceremony and the announcement of a new director.
The Korean-American family drama “Minari,” Lee Isaac Chung’s tender autobiographical tale about his upbringing in rural Arkansas, won two top honors at the Sundance Film Festival.
Awards for the annual festival for independent film were handed out Saturday night in Park City, Utah. “Minari,” starring Steven Yeun, had arguably been the biggest critical sensation at Sundance, earning raves for the immigrant drama set in 1980s Arkansas. It’s produced by Plan B Productions, with Brad Pitt as an executive producer; A24 will release it later this year.
The film snagged the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize and the dramatic audience award, voted on by festival audiences, at Sundance.
The top documentary prize went to Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s “Boys State,” a portrait of the annual mock-government competition held in Texas with politically ambitious 17-year-old boys. The film reportedly fetched a record acquisition price for a documentary at Sundance, with A24 and Apple picking up “Boys State” for $12 million.
“Crip Camp,” a history of the disability rights movement as emanating from a summer camp in upstate New York, took the audience award for documentary. Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht’s film, is a Netflix release backed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.
The juried awards are chosen by small panels of filmmakers and critics.
In stark contrast to Hollywood’s Oscars season, many of the directing awards went to women. Radha Blank won best director in the dramatic competition for her breakthrough debut “The 40-Year-Old Version.” The film, produced by Lena Waithe, is a black-and-white, semi-autobiographical tale about a New York playwright who turns to rapping.
The awards jury also gave special awards to Josephine Decker for her Shirley Jackson drama “Shirley,” for auteur filmmaking; and Eliza Hittman for her teen abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” for neorealism.
The award for documentary directing went to Garrett Bradley for “Time,” about a Louisiana activist’ years-long effort to get her husband released from a 60-year prison sentence.
During the awards, Sundance also announced Tabitha Jackson as its new director.
Jackson takes the reins of the premier American film festival whose previous director, John Cooper, last summer said he would step down following the 2020 edition of Sundance, which wraps Sunday. Jackson becomes the first woman, the first black person and the first Brit to head the annual Park City, Utah, showcase for independent film.
“All of these things make up part of my fabric,” Jackson said in an interview ahead of the announcement. “I suspect that the symbolism of it, in so far as it is inspiring to others who may feel they have permission to go for these big jobs, is helpful. But I hope the appointment was made on the basis of substance rather than symbolism. But at times like these, in this political climate, it is worth noting.”
Jackson’s appointment means that the top three positions at Sundance are all filled by women. Keri Putnam is the chief executive and executive director of Sundance Institute, the nonprofit organization founded in 1981 by Robert Redford that puts on the festival. Since 2018, Kim Yutani has been the festival’s programming director.
Putnam oversaw the search process, along with a selection committee that included Jason Blum, founder of Blumhouse Productions and a member of the Sundance board. She said the festival received 700 applications and considered many outside candidates before choosing Jackson for her close connection to independent artists.
“From my perspective, putting Tabitha and Kim at the helm is the future,” said Putnam. “And I’m really excited for where they go.”
The completed leadership team, along with Cooper who transitions into an emeritus director role, will be tasked with steering Sundance into one of the festival’s most challenging new chapters. Redford, the face and founder of Sundance, is stepping back. Now 83, Redford is mostly retired. This year, Redford did away with his usual opening-day press conference.
“In an interview I had with Robert Redford, I asked him what he was looking for in the next festival director,” said Jackson. “He said a commitment to independence and an embrace of change. I think that is an incredibly powerful filter for deciding how we take the festival forward into the next chapter. They happen to be the kind of eternal verities of Sundance, anyway.”