The recently-concluded Sundance Film Festival, which was founded by Robert Redford in Park City, Utah, is the premiere festival for independent film in the United States and perhaps the world. The trinidad + tobago film festival’s creative director, Emilie Upczak, had the privilege of covering the Sundance festival for the Sundance Channel. I spoke with Emilie via Skype and she told me what the experience was like.
How did you get involved with Sundance?
I got a job with the Sundance Channel, working as a coordinator for one of two film crews sent to the Sundance Film Festival to cover everything—all of the filmmaker interviews, the red carpet, parties, luncheons, panels, the whole gamut. I was also there working as a representative of TTFF. As the creative director I spoke on behalf of the Festival to a lot of people, and then also as an independent and emerging feature film director, looking for opportunities for myself as well.
What is it about the Sundance Festival that you think makes it different, and important for film and filmmakers?
It’s definitely a marketplace for ideas. It’s so exciting to be there and there are so many people who are either premiering their films or introducing new initiatives. For example, one of the things that I found really exciting was this new initiative by Joseph Gordon-Levitt called Hit Record, which is basically a virtual collaboration of short and feature filmmaking through the Web. Someone can upload a project, and then as an independent filmmaker you can go online, download that project, work on it and then upload it back. At the end ultimately Joseph Gordon-Levitt will choose different projects and try to get distribution for them.
So it’s things like that; people with new ideas. I found it to be absolutely cutting-edge. A lot of people are critical now of Sundance, saying it’s sold out, or it’s really part of the capitalist Hollywood marketplace, but I actually didn’t find that. There’s definitely a lot of stars there, but there’s also student filmmakers, emerging filmmakers, distributors, press people—everyone, really, who’s engaging in the conversation of film, which is so exciting.
The other thing that’s so exciting about the Festival is that it really is a festival. One night you’re at a wild party dancing with Parker Posey, the next day you’re at a panel where all these new media artists are talking about their video installation projects, then you’re at Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Shock Doctrine, then you’re listening to a panel with Naomi Klein, Robert Redford and Michael Winterbottom discussing international economic policy, and then you’re at another party somewhere. The range of experiences is fabulous, from being an observer to also being a participant.
Coming out of the Festival, what are some of the big issues or themes people are talking about or concerned with in terms of film production and film marketing right now?
There’s definitely a concern for the independent film market and distribution and the shrinking economy around that, and the lack of opportunities for filmmakers to get their work distributed. The theme for Sundance this year was “rebel”, and about getting back to their roots. Again, they’ve had a lot of criticism about not really holding true to their mission, which is representing the independent voice. Also, how to nurture the culture of original storytelling, and to be careful of the moneymaking machine and the formulaic stories that really don’t give insight to political and social themes.
Can you name some of the films you saw that really stood out?
One of my favourites was Women Without Men, directed by Shirin Neshat, about the Iranian resistance in the 1950s and four particular women and their pursuit for freedom outside the establishment. Also The Shock Doctrine, based on Naomi Klein’s book about Milton Friedman’s economic theories developed in the 1960s at the University of the Chicago, and the implementation of those theories from them until now.
The festival opened with Howl, about Allen Ginsberg, starring James Franco. I thought that was excellent. I didn’t get to see it, but everyone was talking about Winter’s Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize. It’s a film noir about a family in the Ozark Mountains.
What were some of the more interesting panels that you covered?
One of my favourite experiences was going to the directors’ luncheon, which was up at the Sundance Resort. We got to be present with all of the directors who were showing films at Sundance, and then Robert Redford gave a personal address. That was very inspiring. Also, the journalist Amy Goodman, who has this radio show called Democracy Now, gave a great discussion on film and politics.
Also, one of the things that Sundance is doing that the TTFF is doing, is they’re having what they call “30 Days of Festival” after the Film Festival on Sundance Channel, on video on demand. It’s just like our relationship with Flow.
As TTFF creative director, what are some of the things from Sundance that you think we could adopt, in terms of taking our film festival forward?
One would be our ability to mentor participating filmmakers, to use our festival as an opportunity for more creative conversation between filmmakers. I definitely think the model of participating filmmaker integration is the way to go. People call Sundance a filmmakers’ film festival because if you’re one of the filmmakers who gets invited to Sundance you really get treated very well. You’re immediately a part of a community. Also, I think we could integrate the local filmmakers more with the visiting filmmakers.
Music and film is a direction we need to explore more, because the Caribbean is such a music-centred culture. There are a lot of opportunities in terms of composing scores for films or making music videos. I think that could be a hot spot for us.
Finally, what stars did you meet?
Well I didn’t sit and have coffee with any of them, but we interviewed James Franco, Elijah Wood, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Kline, Katie Holmes, Samuel Jackson, John Hamm, Dakota Fanning, Michelle Williams, Kristin Stewart, Mark Ruffalo, Bill Gates—he launched Bing at the festival—Jason Ritter, Philip Seymour Hoffman…. But by about day five I was like, whatever. After a while you realise stars are just regular people too.