(ABC4) – After a last-minute shift to a virtual format, the Sundance Film Festival officially kicks off its 44th iteration on January 20. Although COVID-19 once again thwarted plans for an in-person event in the festival’s historic Park City home, festival organizers believe the change tested them and allowed them to adapt and thrive.

“I mind saying virtual because there is nothing unreal about it,” Tabitha Jackson, the festival’s director, said during the press opening event, held via Zoom. “This is a gathering around work, we’re responding emotionally, we’re gathered at a moment in time.”

The virtual nature of our recent world didn’t hinder the artists’ work, either. In fact, according to Kim Yutani, Sundance’s director of programming, the pandemic motivated the artists in exciting ways and pushed the direction of the festival.

“With this ongoing global pandemic, we were not sure how that would affect creative output,” she said. “We were really pleasantly surprised to discover that artists found a way to sustain themselves to make work despite the challenges.”

Jackson adds that when artistic society is experiencing pressure, well, we all know how diamonds are formed.

“I think there can be incredible flowerings of creativity when the artistic community is under pressure,” she says.

This is why, the Sundance team believes, this year’s slate of films emerged in the way it did.

Although the team said in the press welcome that they don’t select films for the festival based on promoting a specific agenda or adhering to a certain theme, preferring the let areas of focus arise organically, this year’s lineup appears to have put a magnifying glass to various social justice movements and diverse voices.

One of the primary topics filmmakers chose to explore this year is the current state of the environment. One film, titled Gondwana, sheds light on the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, located in Australia. Gondwana takes the form of the 24-hour immersive exhibition, in which participants are invited to enter and roam the forest during the extended period. Every 14 minutes of the total 24 hours represents one year in the rainforest. Viewers will be able to witness the fruition of climate change predictions, but the outcome of the film simulation depends on how many viewers act to do their part for climate health.

Another theme that takes center stage this year is reproductive rights. During the press event, Yutani chose to highlight the film Call Jane, by Phyllis Nagy, which documents the story of a woman who develops a life-threatening condition during her pregnancy and must find help amongst a medical system that seems unwilling to give it.

This year’s program also highlights the voices of those with disabilities, with films such as I Didn’t See You There, by Reid Davenport, which Yutani describes as a “first-person meditation from the perspective of a disabled filmmaker.”

Yutani also says that much of this year’s film slate deals with fighting systems of power, particularly from the viewpoint of women and people of color. According to Shari Frilot, the Festival’s senior programmer and chief curator of the New Frontier program for emerging artists, 30% of this year’s lineup comes from indigenous artists.

Yutani specifically highlighted the fiction film 892, a new premiere called God’s Country, the documentary Phoenix Rising, and Nothing Compares, a film focused on Sinead O’Connor.

But despite the hard-hitting nature and heavy themes of many of the films, Jackson says joy is also a central theme.

And the joy, the Sundance team hopes, will extend beyond the screen, too.

“In this world, which is kind of mediated by screens, I think coming together and expressing joy together and being stimulated by this work is what the festival is all about,” Jackson says. “We have been determined that we will launch this work and gather and converge in any way we can.”