My Sundance journal

by Keith Barber

“Snow is falling as we drive into Park City. Could it be any more perfect?” read the opening lines of my Sundance 2010 journal. Much to my chagrin, it’s the only line entered into the journal that was supposed to chronicle my eighth year working on what is widely considered America’s most prestigious film festival. I hurriedly typed out the two sentences on my iPod Touch while sliding around in the bench backseat of an airport shuttle van as dusk rapidly engulfed the Utah ski resort town on Jan. 18.

The shuttle turned left at the intersection of Kearns Boulevard and Park Avenue, headed for festival headquarters. Realizing I was only two minutes away from total immersion, I took a breath and gauged my emotions.

I had been down this path many times before, and each year the festival has held a unique significance. Nervousness, anticipation and excitement were the dominant feelings prior to the 1999, 2002 and 2004 festivals. Since 2006, I haven’t missed an opportunity to do my small part to contribute to the festival.

It comes from a place of sincere gratitude.

I have told this story many times. It is part of my personal lore.

Eleven years ago, I departed North Carolina in my 1990 VW with $235 in my wallet and the dream of working at the Sundance Film Festival in my heart. I barely had enough money for gas, food and lodging to cover the 2,500-mile journey. However, I did have one very good friend waiting for me in Salt Lake City.

Virgil and I met on the set of The Last of the Mohicans in 1991. He was a featured Native American extra and stunt man, while I served as a set production assistant. Virgil had said I could crash at his apartment until I got on my feet. Fortunately, that didn’t take long.

I landed a good job in Park City the day after I arrived, and found a great place to live just a few days later. A long-held dream of mine had been to live in a writer’s cabin in the woods. The handcrafted log cabin off the Silver Lake Highway in Kamas, Utah was a fantasy come true. The owners, Robert and Helene, were like my surrogate parents.

They required no deposit and gave me two weeks to pay the first month’s rent. I felt very safe, secure and happy in my log cabin. Everything was working out perfectly with one glaring exception: The festival was only two months away and I hadn’t achieved my purpose.

I visited festival headquarters one day after my arrival and asked if I could be a sign-up volunteer. The Sundance representative said she would place my name on a waiting list with 200 other people merely hoping to be sign-up volunteers. It was hard to imagine that 1,500 volunteer positions could be filled that far in advance.

Weeks later, I watched helplessly as Park City work crews began hanging the Sundance banners from streetlights, and I waited for a phone call.

Then, fate intervened. “Did you say you wanted to work on Sundance?” I heard the person standing behind me say. I turned around and met Heather. She had overheard me telling a Main Street shopkeeper of my dream to work on the festival. Heather, an assistant box office manager, promised she would speak to her boss, and try to secure me a volunteer position.

A few hours later, Heather called with good news.

Mission accomplished. It’s a feeling I’ve never forgotten.

The 2010 festival was filled with plenty of “Sundance moments,” as I like to call them. I screened nearly 20 films, attended a fascinating panel discussion and even found time to reunite with old friends. It snowed almost every day, turning Park City into a glistening, pristine wonderland for film lovers. In the beginning, two weeks seemed like a long haul, but in the blink of an eye it was over.

Now, I must make the successful adjustment back to real life. I had always thought the days after the festival should be a time of taking it easy and recovering from two weeks of sleep deprivation and sensory overload. I’ve discovered that the days after the festival are truly the most crucial days of my entire year.

How I spend each minute of this transition period ultimately determines the length, depth and breadth of my achievements in the coming 11 months.

We’re talking about the No. 1 clincher of everything good and bad in every area of life for the next 330 odd days. Every accomplishment in my personal life (i.e. improving the quality and depth of my relationships) to my devotion and passion for filmmaking, the week following the festival is the best indicator of how much I will get done in 2010.

If I thought I was on a dead run from the moment the Delta airliner touched down at Salt Lake City Airport on Jan. 18, that was nothing compared to the push I must make now. Learning the mental discipline that is required is to take that powerful feeling of inspiration captured inside dark theaters at the festival and translate it into concrete action takes years of trial and error, experiments that have resulted in both success and failure.

A Barber family trait is a tendency to rest on our laurels — to step back and say, “Look what I did! What a clever boy am I!” Completing my first feature-length film last November (my first film since my undergraduate days at UNC), offered me the best opportunity to engage in this subtle form of self-sabotage. But forces in the universe, along with the my film’s editor and associate producer, impressed upon me that completing the documentary merely represented the first step in a lengthy process.

“Celebrate the night you get a DVD of the film in the final FedEx run and send it out to two film festivals,” they seemed to say. “Call your friends, family and Coach Walters [the high school football coach at the heart of my film, Any Given Friday] and share the good news. Then, it’s back to work.”

Actually, I heeded their advice. I placed a copy of Any Given Friday in the hands of Trevor Groth, Sundance’s head of programming, during the festival. Turns out Trevor’s father is a high school football coach. Was it coincidence or Sundance magic?

Personally, I’m leaning toward Sundance magic. For that is the mystical force that keeps bringing me back to this small ski-resort town year after year for a frigid fortnight to be inspired, to learn, to grow and to feel what it means to be alive.