Controversial documentaries and A-listers head to Sundance 2020 | Film

A host of buzzy star-led documentaries and a some major A-list actors will be headlining this year’s Sundance film festival, which kicks off in Park City in Utah this week.

The 36th edition of the festival will kick off with the world premiere of Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, a “raw and honest” look at the star that will land on Netflix in February. The film-maker Lana Wilson, whose previous films have covered suicide in Japan and late-term abortions in the US, has covered the singer’s rise as an activist.

“There’s a lot that’s not cute in this documentary,” Swift said in an interview with Variety while Wilson has referred to it as a “feminist coming-of-age story”.

One of the most controversial films premiering in Utah is from the producer Amy Ziering and the director Kirby Dick, who have previously gained acclaim and awards for covering campus rape in The Hunting Ground and sexual assault within the military in The Invisible War. Their latest film, On the Record, focuses on sexual misconduct and abuse allegations against millionaire music mogul Russell Simmons, who co-founded Def Jam. While the documentary does bring in other voices, the primary voice is that of Drew Dixon, an A&R executive who alleges rape in the mid-90s.

The film had been blessed by Oprah Winfrey who not only added her name as executive producer but took the film to Apple TV+ who agreed to distribute it. But earlier this month, she took her name and streaming deal away citing “inconsistencies” and a disagreement over the “creative vision” of the film. Winfrey has admitted that Simmons tried to dissuade her from getting involved but has insisted that the decision to disavow the project isn’t related, stating this week that it is “not a victory for Russell”.

“I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime,” Dixon has since said. “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”

Simmons has denied all allegations of sexual wrongdoing.

The festival will also see the first screening of Hillary, Hulu’s four-hour documentary series on Hillary Clinton. The series, based on 35 hours of interviews with the former presidential candidate, has already been making headlines for Clinton’s remarks on the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in which she claims that no one likes him or wants to work with him.

“I really hope young people watch it,” Clinton said to the Hollywood Reporter of the doc. “Especially young women because I want young women to have some idea of the arc of what we’ve all gone through over the past 50, 60 years because they have to save [women’s rights]. They have to defend them against constant attacks.”

One of the major narrative premieres is Downhill, a remake of Ruben Östlund’s acclaimed Swedish comedy Force Majeure about a marriage that unravels after an avalanche during a ski trip, when the father grabs his phone and flees the scene – and his family. The American version stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “It was daunting, except to say that we never would have done it if we didn’t have Ruben’s blessing,” Louis-Dreyfus said to Variety on her five-year journey to remake the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch will also be heading to Park City with the fact-based Cuban missile crisis drama Ironbark, one of many true stories premiering this year. Michael Keaton will also play the lawyer in charge of the 9/11 victim-compensation fund in Worth, Elisabeth Moss will play the American horror writer Shirley Jackson in biopic Shirley and Julianne Moore will take on the role of the feminist activist Gloria Steinem in The Glorias.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in Shirley. Photograph: Sundance film festival

Sundance is typically seen as a marketplace with most films arriving without distribution. Previous years have seen major deals for films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Manchester by the Sea and The Birth of a Nation. But last year’s big-money deals, for films including Late Night, Brittany Runs a Marathon and Blinded by the Light, all resulted in underwhelming box-office takings leading many to wonder how lively this year’s business will be.

“There’s a lot of really interesting original movies that are in the marketplace that are female-driven or minority-driven or black-driven,” Dear White People creator Justin Simien, whose new comedy horror film Bad Hair is premiering this year, said to Variety. “But at the same time, that same fear to take a chance on something that’s different is prevalent.”

This year’s lineup is one of the most diverse to date with 44% of the 188 films showing directed by one or more women, 34% directed by one or more film-maker of color and 15% from one or more director from the LGBTQ+ community.

The festival takes place from 23 January to 2 February.

This article was amended on 23 January 2020 because an earlier version misnamed Russell Simmons. This has been corrected.

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