Sundance Film Festival opens with a last-minute Brett Kavanaugh documentary, new Salt Lake venues and free films for Utahns | News | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Sundance Film Festival opens with a last-minute Brett Kavanaugh documentary, new Salt Lake venues and free films for Utahns

Sundance Season

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Incoming Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez (center) leads a discussion of top Sundance leaders at an opening-day press conference in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 19. - BENJAMIN WOOD
  • Benjamin Wood
  • Incoming Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez (center) leads a discussion of top Sundance leaders at an opening-day press conference in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 19.

PARK CITY—The 2023 Sundance Film Festival formally kicked off on Thursday, as top leaders promised a slate with “something for everyone” and beamed over the return to live programming after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted back-to-back years of online-only events.

“It feels just so good to be back in person, to welcome press, the industry, audiences and to be here to celebrate the incredible films that this amazing programming team selected,” said Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente. “In a way, film festivals are more important than ever.”

This year’s festival is being presented in a hybrid format, with online access to films in addition to the traditional in-person screenings in Park City and Salt Lake City, and at the Sundance Mountain Resort. Asked if hybrid programming represents a new normal for Sundance following the pandemic, Vicente said there is a clear demand for remote access, with digital passes selling out quickly once made available.

But she added that there is no substitute for filmmakers, audiences and industry representatives coming together in a physical space, and that a live festival will continue to be prioritized as planners experiment with and learn from new approaches.

“We felt like we can’t just go back, we really need to go forward,” Vicente said. “I think, you know, one festival at a time.”

The 2023 film slate includes 111 feature-length films from 28 countries. The final selection, announced Thursday, is “Justice,” a debut documentary from director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) that focuses on allegations of sexual assault by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The film is scheduled to have its world premiere on Friday and was reviewed by festival staff shortly before its inclusion in the 2023 event.

“We saw it practically yesterday, and it's a film that, I think, challenges existing narratives,” said Kim Yutani, Sundance’s programming director. “I think it asks tough questions and I think it also provokes conversation, which is what we hope all our films in the program will do.”

A still from the film Justice, a documentary by director Doug Liman about the allegations of sexual assualt by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • A still from the film Justice, a documentary by director Doug Liman about the allegations of sexual assualt by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh's nomination by then-president Donald Trump in 2018 became a flashpoint for controversy after allegations were raised by multiple women accusing Kavanaugh of assault and misconduct dating back to his days at an elite prep school. In a prepared statement, Liman said it shouldn't be as hard as it was to have an open and honest conversation about the questionable behavior of a justice on the Supreme Court.

"Thanks to this fantastic investigative team and the brave souls who trusted us with their stories, Justice picks up where the FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh fell woefully short," Liman said. "The film examines our judicial process and the institutions behind it, highlighting bureaucratic missteps and political power grabs that continue to have an outsized impact on our nation today. "

Speaking about the themes and common threads of the 2023 Sundance slate, Yutani said her team sifted through a large number of biographical documentaries, with both intimate character studies and works about well-known figures (like actors Michael J. Fox and Brooke Shields, musician Little Richard, author Judy Blume and professional basketball player Stephen Curry) making the cut.

“There’s so many people’s stories that are worth telling,” she said. “I don’t see any one type of film dominating our program this year. We have hard-hitting dramas, we have films that are taking formal risks, we have films that are comedies and that are just crowd-pleasers.”

Vicente added that many of this year’s films touch on global challenges—like the war in Ukraine, climate change and threats to the press and free expression—from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints.

“We live in this much more interconnected world where everything affects everyone—we’re all dealing with the issues of our time,” she said. “So many of these big themes are present in everything that we see.”

The festival is expanding its footprint in Salt Lake City this year, with a new screening venue at the Gateway’s Megaplex Theater, and with two official festival lounges at HallPass (beneath the Megaplex) and Copper Common (located next-door to the Broadway Centre Cinemas, a longtime Sundance screening location).

Most screenings are sold out, but the festival periodically releases additional tickets and offers a waitlist option through its smartphone app that, while not guaranteed, often allows entry to dozens of additional audience members, particularly at the larger venues. The festival is also hosting a series of free screenings for Utah residents through its Local Lens program, at both Salt Lake City and Park City venues and a to-be-announced online screening. More information on the free Local Lens screenings and how to obtain tickets can be found here.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival concludes on Jan. 29. For more information, visit festival.sundance.org.

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