Sundance 2021: New Frontier Program Unveils 14 Selections, Presented (Of Course) in Virtual Spaces

Sundance 2021 New Frontier - 4 Feet High VR
Detona Cultura/Red Corner/ARTE France/Realidad 360 Argentina/Malditomaus Animation/VFX Mena Studio

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program will showcase 14 VR and new media projects from across the globe — and, fittingly, they’ll be housed in a custom-built immersive, interactive experience.

“In a certain sense, New Frontier was built for this moment,” said Shari Frilot, senior programmer at Sundance and chief curator of New Frontier.

Given the COVID pandemic, next year’s Sundance will run Jan. 28-Feb. 3 with socially distanced screenings in cities across the country. The fest’s New Frontier track, featuring 32 artists across the 14 projects, will be available online and feature three spatialized digital venues that orbit the Earth alongside the International Space Station. [The full Sundance 2021 lineup is available at this link.]

At Sundance’s 2021 edition, attendees will be able to engage with the New Frontier works, the artists and fellow festivalgoers via a bespoke virtual 3D platform, developed in partnership with digital experience agency Active Theory. In the virtual space, accessible via computers and VR headsets, festivalgoers will be represented as avatars with their registered photos and names and encouraged to engaged in webcam video chats with others.

“It’s like Zoom meets ‘Fortnite,'” said Frilot, adding, “I don’t see us going backward. We’ll take the learnings from this into future festivals.”

The experience’s three venues are: New Frontier Gallery, which hosts the complete slate of live performances, AR, VR and other emerging media works; Cinema House, a social and immersive VR theater that will host five special screenings; and Film Party, an interactive bar with six screens and breakout rooms that will feature films that have just had their world premieres at the festival.

The first project to screen in the New Frontier Gallery and Indie Series is “4 Feet High VR” (pictured above), a virtual-reality experience created by a team of collaborators in Argentina and France about a teenage wheelchair user who aims to explore her sexuality but is ashamed of her body.

“The lineup of new media works this year challenge what we once knew to be true,” Frilot said. “Their works glisten with world building wisdom, and offer time machines that extract the cancer of colonial narratives planted deep within our biology.”

The 2021 New Frontier lineup is smaller than the 20-plus works featured in past years. Frilot said Sundance scaled it back given the shorter run of this year’s festival. “You’re really showing the cream of the crop,” she said.

The virtual exhibition will feature a couple of Easter eggs: At any time, festivalgoers can take leave of the mothership to visit the astronauts aboard the ISS in the immersive experience “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience,” co-directed by Félix & Paul Studios’ Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël. Participants also will be able to spend a night bar-hopping in Amsterdam through IDFA DocLab’s do {not} play experimental social exhibition.

According to Sundance, of the 32 artists in the New Frontier lineup, 44% identify as women, 9% as non-binary, 44% as BIPOC, and 22% as LGBTQ+. New Frontier is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Unity Technologies, Adobe, Dell Technologies, the Walt Disney Studios’ StudioLAB, and Oculus from Facebook.

The New Frontier programming and experience are available to all Sundance passholders and also through the $25 Explorer Pass (which includes access to the Short Film, Indie Series and New Frontier programs).

Here’s the 2021 Sundance New Frontier lineup:

4 Feet High VR (Argentina, France – Lead Artists: María Belén Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, Damian Turkieh, Ezequiel Lenardón, Key Collaborators: Marie Blondiaux, Marcos Rostagno, Eugenia Foguel, Matias Benedetti, Manuel Yeri, Martin Lopez Funes, Guillermo Mena) — Juana, a 17-year-old wheelchair user, aims to explore her sexuality but is ashamed of her body. Trying to find her place in a new high school, she will go through failure, friendship, fear and politics until she builds her own pride. Cast: Marisol Agostina Irigoyen, Florencia Licera, Marcio Ramsés, Natalia Di Cienzo, Francisca Spinotti.

7 Sounds (U.S. – Lead Artist: Sam Green, Key Collaborator: JD Samson) — An immersive, live-streamed audio-video work exploring the universal influence of sound, weaving seven specific audio recordings into a meditation on the power of sound to bend time, cross borders, and profoundly shape our perception.

Beyond the Breakdown (U.S. – Lead Artists: Tony Patrick, Lauren Lee McCarthy, Grace Lee, Key Collaborators: Jesse Cahn Thompson, Aldo Velasco) — Imagines alternate narratives for our near-future reality inside a browser designed to hack our normal online behaviors and cultivate collaborative spaces for self-reflection and renewal.

The Changing Same: Episode 1 (U.S. – Lead Artists: Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster, Yasmin Elayat, Key Collaborators: James George, Alexander Porter, Rad Mora, Elliott Mitchell) — An immersive, episodic VR experience where the participant travels through time and space to witness the connected historical experiences of racial injustice in America. A respectful, haunting story infused with magical realism and Afrofuturism about the uninterrupted cycle of the 400-year history of racial terror — past and present.

Fortune! (France, Canada – Lead Artists: Brett Gaylor, Nicolas Bourniquel, Arnaud Colinart, Key Collaborators: Marianne Lévy-Leblond, Rob McLaughlin, Dash Spielgeman, Rolito, Clement Chériot) — Money, from bills to coins, has no intrinsic value beyond what we’ve collectively agreed to grant it. However, there’s no denying that money governs our lives. This series of animated documentary shorts in AR for smartphones, tablets and social media platforms, explores that relationship. Cast: Frank Bourassa.

Namoo (U.S. – Lead Artist: Erick Oh, Key Collaborators: Maureen Fan, Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell, Kane Lee, David Kahn) — A narrative poem brought to life as an animated VR film, and an ode to a grandfather’s passing, this story follows the journey of a budding artist ― and his tree of life ― from beginning to end.

Nightsss (Poland – Lead Artists: Weronika Lewandowska, Sandra Frydrysiak, Key Collaborators: Marcin Macuk, Piotr Apostel, Kaya Kołodziejczyk, Marek Straszak, Arek Zub, Przemek Danowski) — A virtual erotic poem created in artistic animation with ASMR and interactive elements, immersing the viewer in the sensual experience of poetry and dance.

Prison X – Chapter 1: The Devil and The Sun (Australia, Bolivia, India – Lead Artists: Violeta Ayala, Alap Parikh, Maria Corvera Vargas, Roly Elias, Key Collaborators: Daniel Fallshaw, Rilda Paco Alvarado, Alberto Santiago) — Heavy doors open and you are swept into an infamous Bolivian jail, where you live among devils, saints, wicked characters, corrupt prison guards and even a Western filmmaker. In Prison X, inhabit the dreams and nightmares of the Neo-Andean underworld. Cast: Violeta Ayala, Genesis Owusu, Celina Debassey, Anamaria Gómez Jaramillo, Jesse Odom, Nicole Ukelele.

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran (U.K., Iran – Lead Artists: Javaad Alipoor, Kirsty Housley, Key Collaborator: Nick Sweeting) — A darkly comedic, urgent new play about entitlement, consumption and digital technology, exploring the ubiquitous feeling that our societies are falling apart through the story of two young members of the Iranian elite, asking what their deaths tell us about climate change, social collapse and Instagram. Cast: Javaad Alipoor, Peyvand Sadeghian.

Secret Garden (U.S. – Lead Artist: Stephanie Dinkins, Key Collaborators: Ethan Edwards, John Fitzgerald, Matthew Niederhauser, Danielle McPhatter, Sidney San Martín, Kate Stevenson, Adaora Udoji, Chris White) — An immersive web experience and installation, illuminating the power and resilience in Black women’s stories. Interactive audio vignettes generate a multi-generational narrative that collapses past, present, and future. Cast: Dayne Board, Erlene Curry, Tianna Mendez, Melissa Moore, Brandi Porter, Lisa Sainville.

Tinker (U.S. – Lead Artist: Lou Ward, Key Collaborators: Shimon Alkon, Lara Bucarey, Avril Martinez, Aileen Paron, Anthony Alan Garcia, Roberto Tan, Cristopher David, Neil Realubit, Anton Arcega, David Conklin, Evan Chavez) — What happens when the memories we spend a lifetime creating begin to disappear? Step inside the Grandfather’s workshop to discover this answer for yourself. In this live, bespoke unscripted performance, reimagine what it means to play, to connect and to hold fast to the memories we create. Cast: Randy Dixon.

To Miss The Ending (U.K. – Lead Artists: Anna West, David Callanan, Key Collaborators: Jamie Finlay, Steph Clarke, Dan Tucker) — A VR cubicle of cardboard boxes begins to glitch, revealing an empty dark space in front of you ― until something glimmers in the distance, a wave of blue flooding towards you. A chorus of real memories and imagined futures expands, until only the largest memories are left. Cast: Charlotte Berry, Michael Dodds, Houmi Miura, Ben Kulvichit, Anna West.

Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler (U.S. – Lead Artists: Sophia Nahli Allison, idris brewster, Stephanie Dinkins, Ari Melenciano, Terence Nance, Key Collaborators: Yance Ford, Sharon Chang, Kamal Sinclair) — Inspired by the ideas of Octavia Butler, voyaging into the interstitium: a liminal space, a cultural memory, containing the remnants of our ancestors, a place of refuge, a place of recentering, a portal into an alternate dimension.

Weirdo Night (U.S. – Lead Artists: Jibz Cameron, Mariah Garnett) — A filmed edition, hosted by Dynasty Handbag, of the wildly popular, underground, eponymous live performance and comedy event that, until COVID-19, was held monthly in Los Angeles. Cast: Patti Harrison, Smiling Beth, Morgan Bassichis, Sarah Squirm, Hedia Maron, Blasia Discoteca.