At Sundance, pandemic dramas unfold on screen and off

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This image released by the Sundance Institute shows a scene from "Homeroom," an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Sean Havey/Sundance Institute via AP)

NEW YORK – Peter Nicks had for months been documenting the students of Oakland High School, in California, when the pandemic hit.

“It’s in the Bay,” says one student of the virus as he and others mill together in a classroom, excitedly contemplating the cancellation of school.

Soon, the principal is heard over the loudspeaker — an announcement that would signal not just the scuttling of prom and graduation ceremonies, but, potentially, Nicks’ film. After chronicling other Oakland institutions, Nicks had set out to document a year in the life of the multicultural teenagers of Oakland. “Something like ‘The Breakfast Club’ with kids of color,” he says.

But how do you make an intimate, observation documentary about school life when the hallways are suddenly emptied, the school musical canceled and your third act turns virtual?

“The first order of business was just capturing that moment,” Nicks says, speaking by Zoom from Oakland. “Then shortly after that it was: What are we going to do? How are we possibly going to finish this movie?”

“Homeroom,” Nicks’ fittingly titled — and ultimately completed — documentary, is one of the 74 feature films debuting at this year's reimaged Sundance Film Festival, which opened Thursday. The pandemic has transformed the annual Park City, Utah, festival into a largely virtual event, but it has also reshaped many of the films that will unspool there.

No festival more represents an annual cinematic rebirth — a fresh crop, a new wave — than Sundance. But given the constraints on gatherings since last March, how could filmmakers get their movies made, edited and delivered to Sundance?

The majority of films showing this year were shot before the arrival of COVID-19 — many of them edited during quarantine. But there are numerous filmmakers at the festival who managed the seemingly impossible feat of making a movie in 2020.