During January Term Professor Virginia McCarthy ’81, MA ’85 marked her eighteenth year of shepherding SMC students to the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah, by taking eighteen students on a ten-day immersion into the Sundance Film Festival. Professor McCarthy required every student to see a minimum of 15 films, ensuring that her students experienced a wide range of the stories the Festival had to offer. Pairing movies and myth, the course encouraged students to look beyond entertainment and identify the voices and messages behind independent filmmaking.
At the Sundance Film Festival movies govern lives, celebrities are pedestrians, spectators become critics, and strangers quickly become friends. Movies may be at the heart of Sundance, but the world around those films defines the experience.
While waitlisting, a fact of life for us non-ticket-holding attendees, I met producers, film students, fellow film lovers, even a couple from Moraga. Surprisingly, waitlisting—that limbo period of winning a seat or walking away empty handed—was one of the best parts of the Festival. A fellow Gael and I diligently waitlisted, lowly numbers 144 and 145, to see our beloved Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, to our and the volunteers’ surpris, made it into the screening and sat only a few rows away from Gordon-Levitt himself. Securing a waitlisted seat filled everyone in the class with triumphant glory.
True college students, the entire group participated in the Festival’s many free perks, frequenting the complimentary pop-up restaurants multiple times a day, boasting how many times we scored free food—the greater the number the greater the success. Hungrily grabbing hand warmers off posts, delicately tearing posters from boards, and scouring the city for freebies, we left no complimentary stone unturned.
Beyond celebrities and freebies, was the sense of being a part of this epic moment. We weren’t reading about the movies or the people; we were seeing those movies, we were those people! Devouring films, I began my days with 8:30 screenings and ended them with midnight showings, fueled by copious amounts of caffeine and a ravenous appetite for film. I observed a directors’ panel discussing the distinction between truth and exploitation, speed dated with filmmakers to discuss the journey from idea to screen, mastered the Park City bus system, and, even more impressively, mastered the ability to stand in a moving bus, relying solely on a herd of encompassing strangers to support me.
The Festival challenged us to see advocacy through film. We absorbed brutal depictions of domestic violence, were educated about bridal abduction in Ethiopia, and witnessed the journey of the individuals battling Proposition 8. One with the film and each other, the audience was always a part of the screening, our reaction unapologetically passionate. Q&As after films with directors and actors began to feel like a typical part of the movie-going experience.
Only at Sundance would you chase down a celebrity to retake a blurred photo; only at Sundance could you go five days without paying for a single meal; only at Sundance would seeing four movies in one day be considered normal. The Festival is truly a ten-day escape into countless imaginations. I left the Festival with an endless list of must-watch movies that I cannot stop talking about to anyone and everyone who asks about my trip. The films, people and atmosphere all contributed to what made me love the experience and have me anxiously awaiting my chance to return.