Reflections From the Sundance Film Festival

Posted on January 28, 2010

The Sundance Film Festival, held annually in Park City, Utah, is one of the largest and most prominent festivals for independent filmmakers. This year, three ITVS films made their world premiere at the festival, which brings the total number of ITVS funded films that have screened at Sundance to 69 since we first attended in 1994. Lois Vossen, ITVS vice president and Independent Lens series producer, shares her reflections on this year's festival, which wraps up this weekend.

Arriving in Park City, Utah at 8:00 AM on Friday morning, January 22, a couple of things were clear: it was doubtful that I would get caught up on sleep here. The list of documentaries I needed to screen in the next five and a half days was growing faster than the snowdrift that lay between me and our condo front door –– and this was going to be a snowy Sundance. Three ITVS funded films were featured at 2010 Sundance: Last Train Home by Lixin Fan, The Oath by Laura Poitras, and My Perestroika by Robin Hessman. My colleagues Claire Aguilar and Cynthia Kane attended their screenings and I headed out to find new shows for Independent Lens acquisition consideration. Seventeen films, countless shuttle rides, bad sandwiches on the run, and many snowstorms later, here’s what I remember now that I’m back in sunny San Francisco.

  • Discovering Banksy street art on Main Street at 8:00 AM, Monday morning, en route to an early morning screening. I know there has to be more so I’m in hot pursuit…
  • The Impact Partners party on Saturday night. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, is in the house. We end up talking about the now-canceled TV show Life, and the joys of working with Adam Arkin with whom she starred.
  • Unique offerings at Sundance 2010: Utopia in Four Movements by Sam Green; Double Take by Johan Grimonprez; and Saint Louis Blues by Dyana Gaye, a 48-minute musical documentary from Senegal. Too long but totally unexpected.
  • Finding out when the next special screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop will take place. Banksy pursuit continues...
  • Hanging with Lisa Heller at the HBO party. Real food while sitting down.
  • Discover another Banksy behind the Egyptian Theater. A rat with 3-D glasses. He obviously knows more about the film industry than one might think.
  • Lunch with Cooper, Cort, David, Saundra, and Cinda – the Sundance old timers. I realize we’ve known each other more than 20 years, since I was hired for the 1990 Sundance Film Festival. Cooper is still the funniest person at the table.
  • Catfish is getting the buzz, buzz, buzz.
  • Not as much swag as past festivals -- landfills across the country sigh in relief.
  • Great one-on-one meetings with filmmakers at Miner’s Hospital. Many great projects-in-progress including: An American Promise by Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster, Regarding Susan Sontag by Nancy Kates, 25 to Life by Michael Brown and Yvonne Shirley, Rose and Nangabire by Beth Davenport, Elizabeth Mandel, and Kathy Chevigny to name just a few.
  • Joan Rivers. (Yes, that Joan Rivers). Work alcoholic? Who knew. Too much plastic surgery? Definitely. But she ain’t afraid to speak her mind and after 14 films about the troubles in the world its good to laugh out loud.
  • Tuesday morning: three hours at the Commissioning Editors Round Table Meetings. Can’t help but wonder how so many independent filmmakers persist, but they do.
  • More snow… stuck on a shuttle bus. Get to the theater in time for the screening but only front row seats still open. Will need a neck brace if this happens again.
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop .
  • This would be a great film to leave Sundance on but I have three more films to see before I leave in 20 hours.
  • Someone painted over Banksy’s art on the barn outside Park City. (Feels like the Grey Ghost in New Orleans all over again).

If all goes well, three of the films that unspooled at Sundance 2010 will have their television premiere 12 to16 months from now on Independent Lens. Leaving the festival last night it was obvious I hadn’t done anything to erase my sleep deficit. Documentary filmmakers (especially those working with international themes and sometimes with less money) were thriving, and sloshing through the snow to make it to four or five screenings a day requires commitment, warm gloves and the willingness to occasionally hitch hike in Park City if you just cannot get a taxi. - Lois Vice president and Independent Lens series producer


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