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A preview of this year's (virtual) Sundance Film Festival

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For 44 years, the Sundance Film Festival has celebrated independent features and documentaries. The festival starts today and, like much of life right now, will be virtual. NPR's Mandalit del Barco gives us a preview.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Instead of trudging through the snow in Park City, Utah, film lovers are invited to board what Sundance calls its spaceship. Festival director Tabitha Jackson says on this virtual site, they can interact with each other for films, panels, performances and parties.

TABITHA JACKSON: From your laptop or if you have a VR headset, you can go to this incredible spaceship which allows you to bump into people you haven't seen for ages, meet new people using proximity audio, your webcam and these beautiful little avatars.

DEL BARCO: Jackson says the Sundance spaceship includes live Q&As with filmmakers, also a place to experience the festival's new frontier projects, such as a live performance called "32 Sounds."

JACKSON: I wanted to start the festival with a beautiful, intimate, reflective moment to contemplate on the last couple of years and also meaning and sound and how we go forward. So that will open the festival, and then we have some incredible films rolling out.

DEL BARCO: There's already Sundance buzz about film premieres such as "Emergency," a comedy thriller about a group of Black and Latino college students, and a satire of Southern Baptist culture called "Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul" with Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. There's also excitement for the film "892" with actor John Boyega as an ex-Marine with PTSD.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "892")

JOHN BOYEGA: (As Brian Easley) I ain't playing. I'm not. I'm not playing. Everybody thinks I'm playing, but I'm not. I'm not.

DEL BARCO: Jesse Eisenberg makes his directorial debut with the comedy drama "When You Finish Saving The World." It's based on his book and audio drama about the generation gap between a mother and son.

Among the documentaries at this year's Sundance is "TikTok, Boom," which looks at the social impacts of the popular app. Another doc chronicles the highs and lows of hip-hop superstar Kanye West. Comic W. Kamau Bell directs a new four-part docuseries about comedian Bill Cosby, recently released from prison after his sexual assault conviction was overturned.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY")

W KAMAU BELL: What do we do about everything we knew about Bill Cosby and what we know now? How do we talk about Bill Cosby?

DEL BARCO: And comedian and director Amy Poehler explores the legacy of TV's Lucy and Desi. Another documentary was directed by actress Eva Longoria Baston about the 1990s rivalry between boxing champs Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar De La Hoya.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LA GUERRA CIVIL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That fight divided the Mexicans and the Mexican Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Get him, Oscar.

JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OSCAR DE LA HOYA: I was so angry. I wanted to punish him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: This year, there are several films about women's reproductive rights and health, including "Aftershock," a documentary about Black women and mortality during childbirth. And several films are set before the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, when abortion was widely illegal in the U.S. The film "Happening" follows a college student as she seeks an abortion in France in 1963, before it was legal there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).

DEL BARCO: Another feature, "Call Jane" starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, is set in 1968. It's about the real-life Jane Collective, an underground abortion referral service in Chicago. The women in that collective are also the subject of a documentary called "The Janes."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE JANES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Women did awful things out of fear and desperation. We knew that some would be injured. Some would die. So we thought, we can be of use. You need an abortion. We'll help you. Call this number, and ask for Jane.

DEL BARCO: These are the kind of topical films audiences have come to expect at Sundance.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "SECOND WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mandalit del Barco
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.