TRUE: I took a five-day trip to the mountains to watch movies as part of Sundance Film Festival.
TRUE: I could just give you reviews of those films, despite knowing that they won’t be released for several more months. I could tell you about the random, countless little stories and encounters that we had with different people. I could tell you how beautiful and underrated Utah is, along with the coolest places to check out in Salt Lake and Park City, like I do with every travel recap. But now that I’m back to reality, in a hotel room in Grand Rapids the night before going back to work, I’m realizing that the experience went beyond that.
There’s a moment when your friend texts you asking if you want to go to Sundance Film Festival and though you hesitate because you just started your first adult job and vacation days may be rare and money might still be tight, you realize that this is one of the many benefits of growing up and getting older -- that you are an adult and you can give yourself permission to take on a spontaneous out-of-town adventure to a seemingly unattainable place with just a few clicks of the mouse, (a lot of planning), and a reply: OKAY / FINE / LET’S DO IT.
Sundance turns into a haze. 4 days. 9 movies. 6,900 feet above sea level in Utah in January. 12 Lyft rides around Salt Lake and through the mountains to Park City because you didn’t know in advance that you’d need a car. Movies we managed to watch included: Other People, As You Are, Certain Women, Uncle Howard, Joshy, Spa Night, Jacqueline (Argentine), The Fundamentals of Caring, and Maggie’s Plan. There were other industry-related events available which we weren’t able to attend, but for each film we did see, I kept notes that ended up filling a small notebook. There are films I wanted and needed to watch again as soon as the first viewing ended, a good sign that was the beginning of it all.
There’s no denying that attending a major festival such as Sundance is stressful -- getting our bearings, adjusting to the altitude, cramming as many movies in as possible, arriving at screenings on time, waiting in lines, and figuring out how everything worked ourselves -- so much so that we’ll be releasing a beginner’s guide to attending the festival as an audience member. I do wonder how I ever did Lollapalooza three days in a row for five years straight. But by the third or fourth day of Sundance, you already feel like somewhat of an expert and you learn the lesson to do what you feel like doing and not what the ticket cost or the critics are saying. F--- the critics. No, we didn’t see The Birth of A Nation, the talk of the town, the biggest studio deal in Sundance history. We waitlisted early on and a fight nearly broke out after some dude aggressively cut the line and dared a group of younger dudes to punch him in the face for doing so. Not one person in that line even came close to getting a spot in the theater, a trend that continued until the end of the festival, or so I heard from murmurs in every single line we waited in thereafter.
Salt Lake City is amazingly underrated and Park City has mountainous charm, but when I think back to Sundance I think of how inspiring an environment I allowed myself to be present in. Any stresses about transportation and waitlisting faded immediately each time a new movie began, and during each subsequent Q&A I wanted to exist there forever, to hear filmmakers talk about their creative process and interact with newly found fans. Sundance is the largest independent film festival in the country (and the world, arguably, considering its connection to Hollywood) and it seemed to uphold its reputation for supporting independent artists wholly and honestly. Maybe it was the luck of the draw and our smart taste in film choices or the fact that we attended the week after most celebrities left, but there was so much support for new artists and filmmakers all around, so much opportunity given to typically marginalized voices, and so little of a barrier between those creators and the audience. There are aspects of art I can never explain but now I fully understand how inspiration is an emotion of its own.
In the Q&A for my favorite film of the festival, writer/director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte mentioned that he was 23 years old -- my age -- and though I wanted to curl into a ball and roll off the ledge of one of Park City’s numerous mountains, the other part of me was thankful to see the possibilities first hand. (Then I saw him board the same departing flight as me and wanted to tell him all the things but chickened out per usual.) Even if Sundance is a major festival for business purposes, I’m glad it wasn’t completely overtaken by that potential phony Hollywood feeling. Sundance may be one of the most competitive, most prestigious festivals to get into as a filmmaker, but it rarely felt like an institution that chose big names over quality content. It is the first festival of the year and thus one of the first major indicators of the year in film, so how we could start here and end up at #OscarsSoWhite is something to behold. Sundance levels the playing field for new and veteran filmmakers alike. Sundance reminded me of everything I love about film and art.
In the beginning I had to ask myself if the effort was worth attending the festival at all, because couldn’t I just see these movies later in the year when they’re finally released? But to know that such a place and environment exists, even just for a few days, is worth all the time and money and effort for someone like me. I couldn’t have gone with anyone other than Sophia, who understands and respects every aspect of film and media and its industry more than anyone else I know. I’m not as dedicated to watching films on a daily basis and thus the binge of consuming stories, feeling the emotions, and analyzing all of it together felt like discovering film for the first time. Maybe I didn’t take a vacation in the physical sense of laying on a sandy beach blanketed by sun, but I do feel like I took a -- yep -- a mental, emotional, spiritual vacation thinking about films and about life, by way of film.