The Sundance Film Festival has returned in-person to Park City, Utah The film festival went largely online during the pandemic. There were more than 16,000 submissions this year, and nearly half of the films featured are made by first-time filmmakers.

Sundance returns in-person to Park City — with more submissions than ever

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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Sundance Film Festival begins today. The mountain resort town of Park City, Utah, is welcoming filmmakers and film lovers back for two weeks of premiere screenings, panels and parties. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has a preview.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: For two years, Sundance has mostly been online.

JOANA VICENTE: We're just so excited to be back in person.

DEL BARCO: Filmmaker Joana Vicente is the CEO of the Sundance Institute. She says being online did give access to a bigger audience. But there's nothing like being there.

VICENTE: Seeing films together, having conversations, meeting the talent, doing the Q&As and listening to new insights into the films. It's just such a unique, incredible experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Scatting, singing) Tutti frutti, oh, rootie. Tutti frutti, oh, rootie. Tutti frutti...

DEL BARCO: The festival opens with the world premiere of "Little Richard: I Am Everything." The film documents the complex rock 'n' roll icon who dealt with the racial and sexual tensions of his era.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This Black music was so intense. It was so full of power and rhythm. It was so full of that fervency. It had it going on.

DEL BARCO: Among the other documentaries about well-known figures is one about actress Brooke Shields called "Pretty Baby." Another takes a look at actor Michael J. Fox - another, musician Willie Nelson, and still another, author Judy Blume.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JUDY BLUME FOREVER")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She is called the most censored writer of children's books.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A book cannot harm a child.

DEL BARCO: This year, almost half the films at the festival were made by first-time filmmakers. They're from 28 countries. Three are by Iranian women. And there are a record number of works by Indigenous filmmakers. The programming team sifted through more than 16,000 submissions, the most Sundance has ever had.

KIM YUTANI: Artists exploring, like, how we're coming out of the pandemic, how we're reassessing our place in the world, looking at characters who are really complex.

DEL BARCO: Kim Yutani is the festival's director of programming.

YUTANI: We saw a lot of anti-heroes this year, somebody like the character in "Magazine Dreams," who is a difficult character. I think we see a lot of people wrestling with their identities. You see that in a film by Alice Englert called "Bad Behaviour".

DEL BARCO: Yutani says she's excited by the performances of Jonathan Majors, who plays a bodybuilder in "Magazine Dreams," and Jennifer Connelly, who plays a former child actress in "Bad Behaviour" - also, Daisy Ridley, who plays a morbid introvert in a film called "Sometimes I Think About Dying." Yutani also highlights actress Emilia Jones from last year's Sundance hit "CODA." She's in two films this year - "Cat Person," based on a short story in The New Yorker, and "Fairyland," in which she plays the daughter of a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAIRYLAND")

EMILIA JONES: (As Alysia) They're going to find a cure, right?

SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As Steve) The current president doesn't really have that on his to-do list. Republicans see health care the way - same way they see their wealth. It's your responsibility, you should take care of it yourself.

DEL BARCO: Opening night of the festival includes the premiere of "Radical," starring Eugenio Derbez as a sixth-grade teacher in Matamoros, Mexico. Another standout comes from this side of the border, the documentary "Going Varsity Mariachi," which spotlights the competitive world of high school mariachi bands in Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GOING VARSITY IN MARIACHI")

DEL BARCO: And if that's not enough, Sundance is bringing back several of its hits from the pandemic that went on to win Oscars. "CODA" and "Summer Of Soul" will be shown on the big screen, with audiences eager to be back.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOING VARSITY IN MARIACHI")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

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