Sundance 2020: Day 10

Boys State Wins Grand Jury Prize US Documentary

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 8

Up at 9am today but nothing on the schedule until noon, when I attended the volunteer screening of Boys State at the Holiday Village Cinemas. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters), it explores the long running Boys State program, founded by the American Legion to teach high schoolers about the inner workings of American democracy. Many politicians have been alumni of the program and each state runs its own annual weeklong camp, which culminates in elections. The film focusses its attention on Texas, a perennial “purple” state that nevertheless is home to a lot of conservative boys.

The first part of the film is actually kind of horrifying, with displays of machismo and tribalism that remind the audience of the worst sort of jingoism and ignorance. But gradually, characters emerge and they are all intelligent and complex. By the end, we realize that, forced into the shape of the current electoral system, people will sacrifice their ethics and their friendships, just to win. But there are also incredible displays of connection, loyalty, and admiration. Leaders emerge and are thrown into competition. Lives are definitely changed, and we realize that there is still hope. The filmmakers revealed that there are also Girls State competitions and I found myself wanting to see that film next. And as one of the boys in the film wonders, “why isn’t it just People State?” Perhaps the program needs to change, but I’m certainly glad that it exists.

The picture above is from a few days later, when the film won the Grand Jury Prize for US Documentary. The award is well deserved, and I discovered during their acceptance speech that the filmmakers are a married couple.

I came back to HQ to spend an hour or so, but there was really nothing for me to do, so I headed home for a short nap. There had been invites sent out to a Sundance “Dance” party at The Shop, but it was unclear if my volunteer badge would get me in. I headed over early and even though there were barely 20 people in line at the opening hour, the event staff wouldn’t let me in. I spotted Jamie, another Artist Relations volunteer, and we headed to Main Street to get a drink. For the first time since 2015, I had a pizza slice and some beers at Davanza’s, a local spot just off Main, and we ran into someone that Jamie knew from working together at another film festival. Sylvia is a publicist from New York who was working on a couple of films but who seemed to have wrapped up her duties. We spent an hour at Davanza’s then tried to get into High West Saloon, which appeared to be closed, although there were lots of people still inside. Instead, we ended up at the No-Name Saloon on Main, which was packed with locals. It was nice in a way to be part of a regular “Townie Thursday” (as we dubbed it), and we spent a pleasant few hours talking about the film and festival industries. Both Jamie and Sylvia are very knowledgeable and experienced veterans. I got home just around 1am, but in my rush to get a shuttle out to Deer Valley, I lost my favourite pair of reading glasses. Luckily, I brought a spare set.

Sundance 2020: Day 9

Slamdance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 7

After a very good party last night, I thought my venue duties were over, but I got a text this morning at 9am from Terry asking me to go out to Redstone once more to help one of our filmmakers at the second screening of the New Frontier shorts program. One of the filmmakers uses a wheelchair and Terry wanted to make sure she was introduced to the venue manager since for the Q&A she’d have to be brought out of the cinema in order to access the front of the theatre so she could participate. Our driver Paul was on duty but his contract with the festival ended precisely at noon. I was picked up from the Park Avenue theatre (after grabbing my customary coffee at Starbucks) at 11:00am and got out to Redstone by about 11:20am. To my chagrin, none of the filmmakers showed up until about 11:50am (ten minutes before the scheduled start time) and that was not the one I was waiting for. Instead, she was waiting for her producer to arrive and had her ticket, but the producer was going to be late. The venue manager wouldn’t hold onto the ticket and I told her I needed to leave right at noon. I was about ready to leave when the filmmaker I was waiting for arrived, along with a bunch of other people who had been on the festival shuttle. For some unknown reason, a group of about 50 middle school kids also arrived, making the lobby crowded and hard to navigate. I tried to notify the venue’s STOPs (special theatre operations) person but it was taking her a long time to respond. Finally the theatre manager arrived and accompanied our filmmaker to her screening. Paul drove me back to HQ where I gratefully returned my walkie to the charging station and went for lunch at Este Pizza.

I wanted to attend a panel at the Slamdance Film Festival at 2pm and left HQ around 1:15pm but my shuttle took a longer route and I found myself walking up Main Street with only about ten minutes to spare. Luckily I made it to the Treasure Mountain Inn (site of all the Slamdance screenings and events) just in time. The panel was a discussion of last year’s award-winning dramatic film The Vast of Night with its writer/director/editor Andrew Patterson. I saw the film at TIFF back in September and really loved its originality, inventiveness, and performances. Patterson talked about how the film was made, and how it arrived at Slamdance with no connections at all. Since he’s based in Oklahoma City, he didn’t really have any connections to the larger film scene in LA, and festival programmer Paul Rachman stressed that it was a blind submission that just rose to the top. After its awards at Slamdance, the film was acquired by Amazon and will be streamed on Amazon Prime (beginning this May). It also played a few other festivals (including TIFF). It was wonderful to know that truly independent stories can still get to audiences, and when Patterson showed us the trailer a week before its official release, I found myself tearing up. Good storytelling and craft still move me, and that’s why I’m a festival programmer and director.

Before the panel, I’d met one of Slamdance’s feature documentary programmers (Karin Hayes), and when I told her I programmed a shorts festival in Toronto, she suggested I go into the office and ask if they could share links to the short films. And so I did. They were willing to share filmmaker contact information so I will have to email the filmmakers individually, but it would be great to see what Slamdance has programmed this year.

After the panel, I had arranged to meet up with Indy Film Fest executive director Dan Moore at the Wasatch Brewpub, but before that I ducked into the SundanceTV venue for a free Americano. Dan and I chatted for about an hour before I headed home.

I had several choices tonight. The multi-director hydra beast that is Omniboat was playing at 8:30pm at the MARC but after I found out there would be no Q&A, I decided on another choice. I also could have accompanied Terry and Drew and Bryan to a screening of the award winning short films at the Prospector (also at 8:30pm) but in the end I decided to attend the Volunteer Appreciation party at the ASCAP Music Cafe venue on Main Street. It was close to home for me, and since I’ve run out of some groceries, I was counting on the food to be good and filling. It was (hot pasta and meatballs, etc.). I had the chance to talk to some volunteers I haven’t seen for several days (Artist Relations colleagues, as well as my friend from home Grant). I even ran into Ilias Tahri, whom I met here in 2018 and who hosted me in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand after Sundance that year.

That wrapped up at 10:30pm and I came right home and did a load of laundry, which should see me through the rest of the festival. It’s a bit late now (1:30am) but I’m caught up on blog entries, laundry, and I even have a somewhat solid plan for tomorrow. Goodnight!

Sundance 2020: Day 8

James Faust, Brennan Tilley, James McNally at Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 6

Today was our last big day of the festival, with our final two premieres and the Shorts Awards party. I went to HQ at 10:00am to pick up a ride to Temple, where Shorts Program 2 was premiering at noon. The reality of it being our final two premieres really began to kick in for our team and since we’d already hosted these filmmakers at their first screenings at Redstone, it was pretty easy to recognize them as they arrived. He’s The One writer/director/actor Jessie Kahnweiler arrived in a dirndl and when I didn’t bat an eye, asked me if I was going to say anything about her dress. I did not. But she was fun and friendly and the whole crew of filmmakers seemed very comfortable with each other, making the premiere pretty easy for us. And I finally got to tell the filmmakers of Arabian Alien how much I enjoyed their film.

Shorts Program 3 directly followed and it was nice to see some of those filmmakers in attendance at each other’s screenings. The team from The Devil’s Harmony brought some interesting swag. Tins that contained earplugs (or sometimes mints) tied in to the film’s plot line really well. After the last premiere, our team (Terry, me, Drew, Bryan) took a photo in front of the step and repeat with Doreen, our festival publicist, and then headed back to HQ.

After a few hours break (where I came home and napped for an hour), it was back to HQ to pick up our ride out to Jupiter Newpark (the former Jupiter Bowl bowling alley) for the shorts awards party. Our team of liaisons and volunteers worked outside at the “resolution desk” handing out tickets to any who forgot or lost them. Drew and Terry went in after about an hour to help guide the winning filmmakers on and off stage an into the VIP room (champagne!) after their wins. Bryan and I had to stay out for about another hour. I finally got inside just as the awards were beginning, and was finally able to take off my headset and enjoy the party.

The following awards were presented by the jury: Marcus Hu, Sian Clifford, and Cindy Sherman:

  • Short Film Grand Jury PrizeSo What If The Goats Die (Dir: Sofia Alaoui)
  • Short Film Jury Award: US Fiction-Ship: A Visual Poem (Dir: Terence Daye)
  • Short Film Jury Award: International FictionThe Devil’s Harmony (Dir: Dylan Holmes Williams)
  • Short Film Jury Award: Non-FictionJohn Was Trying To Contact Aliens (Dir: Matthew Killip)
  • Short Film Jury Award: AnimationDaughter (Dir: Daria Kascheeva)
  • Short Film Special Jury Award for Acting – Sadaf Asgari in Exam (Dir: Sonia K. Hadad)
  • Short Film Special Jury Award for DirectingValerio’s Day Out (Dir: Michael Arcos)

I got to meet and talk with a lot of interesting people, both people I knew and some complete strangers. I spotted Dallas International Film Festival’s James Faust along with Calgary Underground Film Festival programmer Brennan Tilley and we took a selfie together (above). Later, I found myself chatting with Cecilia Delgado, editor for both Meats and Dirty. She was driving alone back to New York City the next morning. I also spoke to producer Kate Chamuris, who was here with Blocks, and had a longer conversation with Eli‘s Nate Wilson. Toward the end of the party, I chatted with Marie-Pier Lacroix Couture from Travelling Distribution and Alexandre Dostie (of Travelling as well as here with his own film I’ll End Up in Jail). I’m hoping to receive some films from them for our third festival coming up in November. I also spoke to head shorts programmer Mike Plante about hopefully helping out with some shorts screening for Sundance next year. Fingers crossed.

I left the party just before 1am and caught a couple of shuttles that brought me to the Main Street transit hub around 1:45am. Instead of waiting for a bus to Deer Valley that likely wouldn’t arrive, I just walked and was back in my condo by 2am. But wired from all the conversations and the leftover adrenaline from working so many long days, I didn’t get to sleep until around 3am.

Sundance 2020: Day 7

Animation Spotlight Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 5

I was able to sleep until 9am this morning and it really felt like it made a difference. Then I was able to attend the annual Telefilm Canada brunch for the first hour (12pm until 1pm) before joining the team back at HQ for the ride out to Temple, where we had the premiere of the New Frontier Shorts program.

The brunch was good, but an hour was barely enough time to talk to people. I did meet the producer of a short called A Walk Down to Water which is playing in Slamdance. His name was Behran and he and the rest of the film team are from Calgary. I also talked to Jen Mair from the NFB, writer/directors Supinder Wraich and Renuka Jeyapalan, whose series The 410 is also playing at Slamdance. And I briefly chatted with Shasha Nakhai, another producer from Toronto who is doing a Sundance lab here along with her producing partner Melissa Coghlan. Oh, and TIFF’s Peter Kuplowsky. Then I had to run back to HQ.

Our screening at Temple was for the New Frontier shorts, and we had three teams there, but one of them was so late arriving that we had already left. We needed to ask the venue manager to help us get the filmmaker his check in folder, tickets, and credentials. Hoping it all went well.

Our next screening was down Main Street at the Egyptian Theatre. It was for a short before a feature, and that went well and wrapped up by 6pm. I was able to grab a sandwich at Main Street Pizza and Noodles with my volunteer “grub stub” and just took it back to our condo to eat. I’m catching up on this blog post before having a short nap and heading out again. There’s an informal meetup of all the shorts filmmakers at the bar in the Park Avenue Hotel (formerly the Yarrow Hotel) and then we are there for 10:45pm for the premiere of the Animation Spotlight program which should get underway just before midnight. The days are still long but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

12:35am: Back from the Park Avenue. Screening went well, and was able to meet more filmmakers in the bar earlier, although US$9 beers made things harder. After our screening, there were a few left, and Drew (International Shorts liaison) was going to stay for another drink, but I was able to get a lift all the way home with Terry, who was driving her own car out to an afterparty she was invited to. Happy to get home quickly and get some more good sleep!

Sundance 2020: Day 6

Tacos at Anaya's Market

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 4

We spent quite a lot of today at the Temple Theatre, a really lovely space that is an actual Jewish temple for most of the year. It feels a bit remote, but it’s surrounded by land so it’s calming, rather than being in a big mall like the Redstone Cinemas. I always like working at the Temple, and the venue teams are always welcoming and friendly, too.

We started the day at HQ and then got a ride over to Temple for 10:45am with our Artist Relations driver Paul, who’s been taking great care of us. Documentary Shorts 2 had just two longer shorts, and ours was The Church and the 4th Estate, about a sexual abuse scandal within the Boy Scouts that also implicates the Mormon Church. Director Brian Knappenberger made a feature documentary a few years ago about Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who tragically took his own life after being hounded by law enforcement. I actually met Aaron and have some poignant memories of his intelligence, so I chatted with Brian a bit about that.

We returned to HQ for a few hours and I found lunch at an amazing place. Anaya’s Market is a Mexican grocery store that looks like it’s housed in a shipping container. It also contains a rather excellent taqueria, and I enjoyed two tacos al pastor and a drink for about $6. The Sundance crowds haven’t discovered it because you have to enter the supermarket and go all the way to one end of the store, so it’s kind of a hidden treasure.

Back to the Temple by 4:45pm for Shorts Program 4 which started at 6pm, followed by Shorts Program 5 at 9pm. These were more complicated because there were 7 film teams in each program, and some had quite a few people wanting to access the theatre lounge (“green room”), and we also had a few issues with trying to get last minute tickets for some of the filmmakers. We even had an unauthorized “crasher” who was filming everyone on his phone. That was annoying more than anything and we were able to track him down later and hopefully he’ll have his credential revoked.

Everyone was quite tired by 9pm but Terry, my liaison, was asked to cover a Q&A out at Redstone at 11pm. I felt bad not going with her but she was excited because it was going to be for a film with St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein, and she is a fan. I hope it went alright. She was able to drive her own car out there so at least she could get home quickly afterward.

I was going to go home but the International Shorts volunteer Bryan convinced me to come to the Ray to try to get into Blast Beat, a film in the US Dramatic competition. Amazingly, we got in even though we arrived 15 minutes before the 9:30pm start. We also saw other volunteers Marci and Darline (not in Artist Relations this year) but couldn’t sit with them. In fact, even Bryan and I sat in different rows. I almost fell asleep a few times but managed to stay awake, even though I found the film just okay. I didn’t stay for the Q&A because I really wanted to get home to my bed, but as I came out of the cinema, it was snowing in big heavy flakes. Luckily I found a shuttle pretty quickly and ended up speaking with a filmmaker from Arkansas named David who had also seen the film. He was trying to get to the Egyptian for an 11:45pm film, and I think he just made it. I still had to wait a few minutes at the transit hub for a bus to Deer Valley, and the one I finally got on had put on its “Not in Service” sign but luckily the driver agreed to take us all home. Deer Valley is proving to be a tough place to get home to.