A weekend at the Sundance Film Festival with SFS

Feb. 5, 2015, 9:47 a.m.
The Egyptian Theatre Marquee on Main Street. Photo courtesy of Cara Howe.
The Egyptian Theatre Marquee on Main Street. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Hickerson.

On the surface, Park City, Utah, looked as unassuming as any other small town. But after I spent a few days there discovering the Sundance Film Festival, it slowly revealed the hidden charms and special people that make it unforgettable. For two and a half days straight, we – 18 students on Stanford Film Society’s annual Sundance Trip – crammed in as many films as we could, missing infinitely more, and felt inspired, confused, exhausted and awed. With each film, I briefly entered another world and let the homework and stress of school melt away.

Our group of overeager Stanford cinephiles arrived in Park City, Utah, last Thursday morning after a sleepless and exciting night of travel. By noon, we realized we needed food and caffeine, and both quickly. I hate coffee, so I compromised with a mocha. Chattering excitedly about the films we looked forward to most (and what tickets we’d be willing to fight for), we divvied up the day’s tickets and set out to explore Main Street quickly before our first films.

It was really just like a normal town, except that wearing your Sundance lanyard was actually cool (or were we just deluding ourselves?) and your chance of seeing celebrities was quite a lot higher than usual. Food was overpriced and friendly volunteers were eager to guide you, sending you on the right shuttle to anywhere you needed to go. I’d pictured some main area with tons of theaters and celebrities getting their photos taken, but really, the films were scattered in makeshift locations across the city.

A still from “Chorus.” Photo courtesy of Anouk Lessard.

The first film I saw was “Chorus,” at the Library Theater, a beautiful, black and white French Canadian film about two parents dealing with the newly discovered remains of their son Hugo, who disappeared 10 years before. I forgot to pee beforehand, but the film was so compelling that I didn’t want to miss a second. I perched on my seat for two hours and watched, mesmerized by the struggles between two broken parents trying desperately to be happy. Under François Delisle’s beautiful direction, the story was fraught with tension right until the cathartic moments where façades slipped. To put it simply, I was floored.

A still from “I Am Michael.” Photo courtesy of Cara Howe.

Next, I walked into the giant Eccles Theater — this was at the local high school — to see “I Am Michael” without knowing much about it except that it was supposed to be “controversial.” After its star, James Franco, walked in, along with the director, other actors and crew, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was the world premiere. After the film, most of the questions were directed at Franco, and everyone was trying to get pictures with him. I wanted to hear more from the writer-director Justin Kelley, and I was more in love with the adorable puppy in the film than with Franco, but I guess that’s personal preference.

Still from “Take Me to the River.” Photo courtesy of Thomas Scott Stanton.

Over the next few days, I often had to make the decision between movies, discussing movies and sleep (sleep tended to lose). I made friends on the shuttle buses and appreciated the beautiful snowy weather — for about three days, and then I was ready to return to the upper 60s on campus. After seeing “Take Me to the River” — a story about a gay California teenager visiting Nebraska for his family reunion, a family shrouded in secrets — I was so full of questions that I invited myself into a discussion currently underway between two middle-aged women. We argued about what had really happened in the movie and I tried to convince them that not everyone in Nebraska acted like the characters depicted in the film (hint: homophobia is the least of their problematic qualities).

That’s what Sundance was for me: storytelling, having conversations with once-nameless strangers, sleeplessness remedied by caffeine and late nights hearing about the films everyone else had seen. I left with ideas for my own projects, a list of films to catch this year, and a twinge of regret for leaving a magical place where I could live in a surreal world of storytelling for a few days.

Contact Noemi Berkowitz at noemi11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Noemi Berkowitz is the Chief Theater Critic and a desk editor at The Stanford Daily. She is a junior from Lincoln, Nebraska, double majoring in theater and psychology. You may see her reciting Shakespeare, wearing tie-dye and hiking. Contact her at noemi11 'at' stanford.edu.

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