Every day at Sundance means somethin

by Keith Barber

Never looking at Elmo quite the same again, a renewed appreciation for the life and work of Harry Belafonte, a deeper understanding of the parallels between the current rebellion in Egypt and the failed Green Wave revolution in Iran 18 months ago and a broader sense of the power of film in the age of Facebook and Twitter represent a small sample of what I learned during my two weeks volunteering on the 2011 Sundance Film Festival last month in Park City, Utah.

It’s impossible to put into words the scope of the event. If you try to do it all at the festival, you’ll never make it. On more than one occasion, I’ve been advised that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The 2011 festival represented my ninth year working as a volunteer. Each year, Sundance teaches me something. This year, I learned about the precious nature of time. My typical day would go something like this: My alarm would sound at 7 a.m., two hours before my first movie screening. That would give me plenty of time to take a shower, get a bite of breakfast and try to catch a shuttle bus to the movie venue. Without fail, if I dawdled for more than a minute during my morning routine, it came back to bite me in the butt. The Sundance Volunteer Department put me up in a fantastic condo near Park City Mountain Resort. But to get to the bus stop, it was a five to seven-minute hike as I descended two steep flights of stairs down the side of a mountain. On the mornings I wasn’t focused and lagging behind, I would land at the bottom of the stairs only to hear the roar of a moving bus. Every single attempt to catch the bus or call out to the driver to stop proved futile, and typically, I found myself stuck in the freezing cold for another 15 to 20 minutes. And that was brutal, because every second matters at Sundance. A minute here or there could make all the difference between getting a volunteer ticket to a screening or having to stand in the waitlist line.

Time dictates all the rules at Sundance: Film lovers who want to see a film but don’t have a ticket are advised to show up at the theater venue two hours beforehand. If they arrive 1 hour and 55 minutes before the screening, they will often find themselves stuck with No. 50, which never bodes well for their chances of getting into the film. The festival allots a small number of tickets for volunteers and these are given out one hour prior to each screening.

The number of tickets depends on the size of the venue. On more than one occasion, I arrived at a theatre one hour before showtime only to find out that all the volunteer tickets had been disbursed.

Even the most seasoned Sundance veterans can miscalculate their chances of getting into a film. I’m not embarrassed to say that I have been shut out of my share of films after waiting up to an hour in the waitlist line. When I consider the fact that my job at Sundance is to manage a holding area for a theater venue, and that quite often I have to share the bad news that a screening is totally full, it’s probably a good dose of karma.

Sundance is a reflection of life itself, and with each passing festival, I come to understand that every day means something and each new dawn holds endless possibilities.

Despite the challenges of getting into movies, I still managed to tie my all-time record of 27 films screened.

The films I screened included Mad Bastards, Being Elmo, Submarine, Silent House, to.get. her, Benavides Born, Pariah, Tyrannosaur, Shorts IV, Crime after Crime, The Interrupters, Senna, Buck, All that is solid melts into air, All Your Dead Ones, Corman’s World, If a Tree Falls, Flypaper, Miss Representation, On the Ice, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, The Green Wave, The Redemption of General Butt Naked, Sing your Song, Take Shelter, Shut up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

A random sample of the films I screened:

In Mad Bastards I loved the original music; I was impressed that all the actors in the film were non-professionals. Mad Bastards is a story by an indigenous people — in this case, the Aborigines of southern Australia — which makes it a rare gem.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey was one of the favorites at this year’s festival. The won an Audience Award in the US Documentary category. The story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind one of the most popular characters in “Sesame Street” history, Being Elmo tells the story of Clash’s humble beginnings and how he expresses his true self through the ever-loving, always sweet Elmo.

Submarine is a classic British coming-of-age story by first-time feature director Richard Ayoade. Oliver Tate is a Welsh 15-year-old who pines desperately for classmate Jordan Bevan as the fissures in his parents’ marriage become more and more obvious. Ayoade’s visual style and wry sense of humor make this familiar tale new and vibrant to audiences.

Benavides Born by director Amy Wendel tells the story of Luz Garcia, a small-town Texas girl who’s earned a scholarship to the University of Texas and must find a way to pay the tuition. Luz’s way out is winning a state powerlifting title. When things don’t go as planned, it becomes a test of her character and resilience.

Pariah is a tour de force by first-time director Dee Rees. The story of 17-year-old Alike, Pariah explores prevalent attitudes in the African-American community regarding gays and lesbians.

Tyrannosaur featured some of the finest acting performances I’ve seen in a long time. British actors Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman set the screen on fire in this tragic story of unexpected love.

Crime after Crime by director Yoav Potash was one of my favorite documentaries at this year’s festival. The story of Deborah Peagler, a woman sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for her involvement in her abusive boyfriend’s death, it documents the efforts of two tireless defense attorneys to get Peagler released after the passage of a California law that allows victims of domestic violence to have their cases reopened. Peagler’s story holds a mirror up to the American criminal justice system, and what the audience sees is disturbing. It’s truly a must-see.

Buck was my other favorite documentary at this year’s festival. The story of Buck Brannaman — the inspiration for Sundance founder Robert Redford’s 1992 film, The Horse Whisperer Buck delighted audiences with its poignant story of Brannaman’s childhood and how it ignited his passion for rehabilitating horses.

As you can see, it’s an eclectic set of films.

Also, it would be fair to say that the overall quality of the 2011 crop of films set a new bar for future festivals. I submitted a film of my own to this year’s fest. The film was not accepted, but experiencing the amazing documentaries at this year’s festival helped salve my bruised ego. It also inspired me to work even harder on my next project, which has already begun to take shape. I’m armed with the knowledge and confidence that one day, I will see my name on the silver screen at a future festival. Every day means something and time is precious. Only those who seize the moment will earn the honor of being selected by America’s most prestigious and influential film festival. This is just one of the many lessons I learned during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and for that, I am truly grateful.