‘I cannot stress enough how unrelentingly cold it is out there’ a comment on my Instagram read once I’d proudly displayed how well I’d packed my suitcase ready for my first Sundance film festival. But the sepia-tinged image hadn’t bragged just how prepared I actually was with the six woolly jumpers, seven 80-denier tights, novelty ear muffs and thermal underwear crammed into every corner of my luggage. That and my Sundance bible lovingly curated by the Sundance London programmers with a sturdy list of what to catch during my week-long adventure.
Film festivals are my thing. Ever since Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham yonks ago I knew this was my calling. I love the way they sink deep into whatever city it lands and unashamedly flood it with cinema and cinephiles. Utah was no different and as soon as we stepped off the plane we were greeted to the Sundance welcome of branded banners of scarab blue and blood orange wrapped around the luggage desks.
My mission was to observe and experience the essence of what’s known as the most important and largest festivals for independent film in the world and see what we can recreate for Sundance London coming to Picturehouse Central on 31 May – 2 June.
Sundance began in 1978 and has become a mecca for indie film. It’s where new talent gets a firm leg up onto a stage eager for new and diverse stories and voices. It nurtures those with an unrelenting passion to tell cinematic tales; long or shot, features or docs.
As Desiree Akhavan (above) so precisely said during an interview after the screening of her second brilliant feature The Miseducation Of Cameron Post; ‘don’t make films unless you have to. Filmmaking is fuc*ing hard.’ It’s a punter’s privilege to sit in those cinemas and witness the elated relief of filmmakers who’ve turned niggling dreams into realities. Nothing is as moving as witnessing the lights go up on a full house of applause and watch an exhaling filmmaker welcome their biggest audience yet to the story they’ve spent years trying to tell.
One of my favourite anecdotes was hearing that director Bo Burnham halted the premiere of his much-talked up Eighth Grade to tell whoever’s phone was ringing to turn it off. Kudos. When you’ve come this far, you don’t want your work tarnished by the ring-ring of someone’s PPI call.
When you’re in a Sundance cinema, you experience someone’s dream come true. This observation has not gone unnoticed by the people running the show. On day one we put faces to email names and was introduced to Mary – Director of Corporate Development. Here on the brink of yet another Sundance, she couldn’t help but apologetically tear up with joy as she excitedly explained: ‘lives are about to be made and minds are about to be changed. I love this festival!’ We also met Robert Dick (Corporate Development), our hero who did everything to ensure we had all the right tickets to the right films. We then housed up in the backstage offices witnessing the adrenaline-pumped staff and volunteers turning the cogs on the periphery of the festival.
In-between the films I caught (which you can read about here), fascinating talks in the cosy Cinema Cafe (including an incredibly rousing diversity speech from Ashley Judd), debates on stream vs screen, and seeing the British filmmaking flag flying high and proud at the Filmmakers Brunch and British Film Council’s drinks, I observed how Sundance warmly infiltrated the snowy town of Park City. Within the coffee shops and the free shuttle buses, everyone belonged to the Sundance community and wore an enthusiastic smile.
Sundance now falls on the annual day of female solidarity after last year’s rise against Trump. As hundreds marched across the world, for this year’s Women’s March, I joined the crowds taking a break from films to gather for a Women’s Respect Rally and witnessed speeches from the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tessa Thompson, Common and Jane Fonda. Despite the -6 degrees weather, we were warmed by the words of these incredible speakers.
The parties gave a chance to shake a leg and meet people outside of the quiet dark of the cinema. After a few Grey Goose cocktails at the Yardie afterparty, we danced for longer than wise for our early start but when Idris Elba is on the decks and you’ve just been introduced to Riz Ahmed it’s pretty hard to say no to one more espresso martini.
Networking unearths so many fascinating stories of the how and why people are at the festival. From up and coming filmmakers, the editor who graduated from working on Adam Sandler films to Ethan Hawke’s Blaze to having a bitch about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl troupe with a new film production ally, everyone at Sundance has a story to tell.
‘The story lives in you’ is the underscoring phrase of the Sundance branding and is a perfect reminder when hearing the individual tales and fascinating journeys of everyone who’s been lucky enough to rock up to a Sundance. Here’s to hearing more stories in the flesh and up on the big screen at Sundance London!Next: Sundance 2018: The Films
Sundance London is taking place at Picturehouse Central, London on May 31 – 3 June 2018. Early Bird passes for Sundance London now on sale.