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What it's like attending the Sundance Film Festival in your car in Austin, Texas

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Udo Kier stars in "The Blazing World," a 2021 Sundance Film Festival selection that screened in Austin on Jan. 31. The film was shot in Dripping Springs over the summer of 2020.
  • Sundance Film Festival partnered with Austin Film Society to screen movies at Pioneer Farms.
  • "The Blazing World," filmed in Dripping Springs last year, brought Udo Kier to the drive-in.
  • Audiences saw highly anticipated "Judas and the Black Messiah" a couple weeks before release.

If you appreciate those little coronavirus-era surrealities, here's one. In 2021, we went to the Sundance Film Festival in Austin and watched drive-in movie premieres at a replica of an 1800s village. 

The ongoing pandemic continues to make large public gatherings a bad idea, but it has fostered a time of connection that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. Sundance, which normally happens every year in Utah, went the way of many of its cousins: virtual. But organizers also took the opportunity to bring world-premiere cinema to people around the country, while also supporting their "satellite screen" exhibitors. In Central Texas, Sundance partnered with Austin Film Society for five nights of drive-in screenings of official festival titles, Jan. 28-Feb. 1, as well as a few online conversations.

Austin is home to its own impressive slate of film fests, and we've seen them adapt to the pandemic in remarkable ways in recent months. South by Southwest partnered with Amazon to offer its filmmakers a virtual platform after the fest's 2020 cancellation. AGLIFF, ATX Television Festival and Capital City Black Film Festival took the party online, recreating some of their in-person programming for the computer screen. Austin Film Festival and Fantastic Fest tested the waters with a hybrid online and limited in-theater screenings, and Austin Jewish Film Festival waded into the drive-in waters.

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These days, you can't have too many safe entertainment options — we are restless and we are so very tired — so Sundance was a welcome visitor, probably most of all to Austin Film Society. They've kept their nonprofit arthouse AFS Cinema in North Austin closed for the duration of the pandemic, while most other theaters in the city have reopened or shut down for good. They were also a logical local partner for Sundance: In addition to supporting emerging filmmakers through grants, the film society has been responsible for some of Austin's best socially distant movie screenings from the past year.

Among those was a holiday drive-in double feature out at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, which is already one of my favorite memories of a blue Christmas. So, when AFS and Sundance announced their satellite screenings also would be there — the same place I once watched a lady churn butter on class field trip — I was stoked to check it out. 

Going out on Saturday night, I once again marveled that there is a replica pioneer village tucked away behind Braker Lane, not too far from a highway-side Whataburger. The AFS crew were pros at checking folks in and directing cars into their slots.

Each film started with official Sundance preroll, including an indigenous land acknowledgement and a brief intro from a festival programmer and the director of the night's flick. 

Prano Bailey-Bond's "Censor," which screened in Austin on Jan. 30 as part of the Sundance Film Festival, is an ode to the "video nasties" era of British cinema.

My first film of the fest was "Censor," a British horror outing from Prano Bailey-Bond and a meta ode to the era of "video nasties" in the U.K. In the 1980s, a whole world of gruesome horror flicks distributed on video caused a moral panic, and Bailey-Bond sets her movie against this backdrop, while also being somewhat nasty itself. 

In "Censor," Enid (Niamh Algar) holds the titular occupation, watching brutal and bloody exploitation flicks and recommending cuts of parts that have gone too far beyond the pale. She's a sober, buttoned-up type, except for flashes of intensity when confronted by the disappearance of her sister when they were girls. Then she screens a film from a legendary schlock auteur that seems to mirror the disappearance of her sister in chilling but bloody ways. Enid becomes obsessed with it, and her journey to uncovering the truth about the film and what happened to her sister peels back the edges of reality.

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Bailey-Bond's "Censor" slinks around in murky, tight spaces, often lit by eerie glows — much like the darkness of a room lit by a flickering TV screen playing a cassette. Algar's a compelling heroine, who so sells her commitment to her quest that you're inclined to see things as she does even when the wheels really start coming off. Stylistically, "Censor" evokes cinematic horror hallucinations like Panos Cosmatos' "Mandy," full of droning tones and sharp cuts to indelible and gruesome images full of dream logic. And its final minutes contain one of the most genuinely and wonderfully upsetting endings I've seen in a while. (It also reminded me of Disney+'s new "WandaVision" series in a cool way, and that's all I'll say about that.)

Sunday brought "The Blazing World" to the drive-in. The fantasy-thriller flick, directed by and starring Texan Carlson Young, was filmed in a bubble in Dripping Springs last summer, in a feat of pandemic filmmaking. So for the cast and crew, the Austin drive-in show was a fitting debut.

"It’s the best version of how we could have premiered this film," producer Brinton Bryan told the American-Statesman recently.

More about Sundance:'The Blazing World,' shot in Dripping Springs in pandemic summer, hits Sundance in Austin

In her intro for the film, Young talked about the film as an exploration of trauma, and how it limits our potential until we reach a point of liberation in our minds. That came across in spades in "The Blazing World," where the suicidal Margaret (played by Young) returns to her childhood home and confronts the young death of her twin sister — lots of sister tragedy at this year's fest — by entering a fantastical, skin-crawling dimension. She's beckoned there by a mysterious man (played by Udo Kier, doing all those great Udo Kier things), with the promise of rescuing her sibling. "What if there’s something at the bottom of the rabbit hole?" the film asks, probably to the cheers of therapists everywhere.

As a feat of sensory art, "The Blazing World" is a sensation. Young composes a world that feels like strolling through a gallery, taking in different canvases with their own distinct pleasures and frights. From the close-ups of a child's traumatized eyes and blood balancing on a knife's edge to Jodorowsky-like desertscapes to a Central Texas manor transformed into something out of "Labyrinth," there's much to appreciate. It all hangs perfectly on the music, from Young's husband, Isom Innis, which communicates "fairy tale thriller" in every scene.

In a post-film Q&A with the cast and crew, Young mentioned that she was inspired by '70s Italian horror movies and wanted to go for a heightened, elevated, almost campy style.

She also said she was intimidated to work with some of the film's cast, which includes Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw, but specifically Kier. If you are wondering, a drive-in Q&A with the eccentric Kier is as much of a ride as you'd think. "I have never performed for cars," he said with that unmistakable German accent before heaping praise on Young. Kier clearly was having a ball. A highlight: "My favorite part was when I had to eat little animals," he said, referencing a scene in which his character munches on some magical fireflies. "They told me, 'Udo don’t worry, they’re chocolate from Switzerland.'"

"Judas and the Black Messiah," starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and also got a drive-in screening at Austin's Pioneer Farms.

Sundance's Austin excursion closed out Monday night with Shaka King's highly anticipated "Judas and the Black Messiah." The story of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and FBI informant William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a timely one. O'Neal was paid by the feds to spy on Hampton, whom J. Edgar Hoover (a disguised Martin Sheen) wanted to take down lest he lead a cohesive movement toward racial revolution.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" is anchored by powerhouse performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield, as well as a luminous star turn from Dominique Fishback as Hampton's fiancee, Deborah Johnson. The film plays like a Greek tragedy, and King's portrayal of the violence and racist conspiracy that those in power in the U.S. have perpetrated against Black Americans — culminating in a brutal police ambush, where officers shot Hampton to death in his sleep — has too many echoes still today. It's in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Feb. 12.

Driving back out into the 21st century along Pioneer Farms' dusty back road each night, I was struck by the resilience of these drive-in festival screenings, and by how great it is to see thought-provoking films in a communal environment. Except, you know, with more car honks. It's not the same thing as rushing through downtown Austin on foot to catch film after film during a festival, but in a time of slowing down, they fit the moment just fine.