Notes: Sundance Film Festival’s Return to Park City

Thoughts surrounding the community of filmmakers and movie fans

This January, the Sundance Film Festival returned to Park City, Utah for the first time since the 2020 iteration, which we attended to explore the pioneering New Frontier division, along with a nightly music series at The Montage Deer Valley. For the last two years, the renowned event has taken place online and in VR headsets—an empowering social addition for those at home). However, this year (our 10th continuous annual participation) was a milestone, from independent premieres to short films and even culinary immersions like the one from chef Melissa King. But the in-person return meant something different than in years past; something more spectacular and yet something far more subtle. It was the reassembling of a community.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance is more than its slate of films (some of which you’ll be able to see online or in theaters in the coming days, weeks and months). It’s the iconography of the Egyptian Theatre, yes, but it’s also the array of partner activities in Park City and the chance encounters in-between. It’s picking up your badge at festival headquarters (the Sheraton Park City) and running into filmmaker Shruti Ganguly, who is attending in coordinate the first-ever South Asian Lodge, with Tanya Selvaratnam and 1497. It’s briskly walking toward the Eccles Theatre and bumping into an old college friend you haven’t seen in 15 years, who is at Sundance as the sound recordist for the feature Bravo, Burkina!. It’s hiking up Main Street to pause alongside a film archivist for MoMA that you worked for at the IFC Center in 2006. It’s a cosmic convergence of individuals who believe in the power of independent cinema—and whether or not you see them often, elsewhere, you understand why you’re all together now.

A still from The Persian Version by Maryam Keshavars, an official selection of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Of course, the programming is the primary attraction and this year exceeded expectation. Although New Frontier did not present virtual reality, immersive storytelling and augmented works, it still claimed three experimental films; one of which, Gush, we saw at an 8:30AM screening at the Egyptian. We caught another 8:30AM screening, as well. It was for The Persian Version, Iranian American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’s nuanced, heartwarming feature, which would rightfully go on to win the audience award in the US Dramatic competition.

Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel and Rosalie Craig appear in a still from The Pod Generation by Sophie Barthes, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, courtesy of Sundance Institute / photo by Andrij Parekh

We indulged in the clever verité comedy of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp and the utter poetry of the cinematography and performance in Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. We connected with the powerful, diverse LGBTQ+ narratives in Andrew Durham’s Fairyland, Ira Sachs’ Passages and D. Smit’s Kokomo City (which won the NEXT Innovator Award). We basked in the quietly futuristic and deeply human world-building of Sophie Barthes’ The Pod Generation (which came complete with soothing Thom Browne costume design). We connected with the sensitive, silly present day of Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings. We reflected upon the power of Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams, perhaps the festival’s strongest feature. We also valued Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person adaptation of the viral New Yorker story, while, our favorite film, William Oldroyd’s Eileen, aptly translated the mood and eccentricity of one of our favorite Ottessa Moshfegh novels.

A still from Eileen by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Our only regret was not seeing more—not having time for the films The Accidental Getaway Driver, Mami Wata, Flora and Son, Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TVRadical and Cassandro. With Sundance movies often appearing in awards seasons one year after their premiere (Sundance 2021’s CODA won Best Picture and Summer of Soul won Best Documentary in 2022), we’re also certain to be hearing about some of these—or others from the roster—in a year’s time. And with Everything Everywhere All At Once (which actually premiered at SXSW 2022) leading this year’s Oscar nominations, it’s worth revisiting our interview with the Daniels at Sundance 2016.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Time disappears too quickly in Park City. Venues like the Canada Goose Basecamp and Chase Sapphire on Main provide access to cast and crew through exhilarating parties and informative talks. These opportunities often enhance films one sees or might hope to see. “Sundance is one of our longest-standing partnerships. We’ve been the presenting sponsor for Sundance for 13 years now. For almost all of that time, we have activated with our Chase Sapphire on Main house here. It’s the center of all the activity,” Marleta Ross, General Manage of Chase Sapphire, tells us at their richly designed pop-up. This year, Chase Sapphire on Main was our base of operations, where we recharged between screenings, interviews, an adventure to the High West Distillery, a celebration at Tao Park City with Anderson .Paak and a daytime dance party at The Vintage Room at the base of the slopes running toward the St. Regis Deer Valley.

Liyah Mitchell appears in KOKOMO CITY by D. Smith, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, courtesy of Sundance Institute / photo by D. Smith

The best part of Sundance, however, is what informs its devout community: a commitment to representation. This year, 53% of all features were directed by one or more filmmakers who identify as women. 45% of all features were directed by one or more filmmakers who identify as people of color. 20% were directed by one or more filmmakers who identify as LGBTQ+ and 5% were directed by one or more filmmakers who identify as nonbinary. It’s the ability to visit the Indigenous House or the Latinx House, and the presence of GLAAD and the Outfest Outpost. It’s a celebration of and spotlight upon the beauty of our differences, all under a blanket of snow in the mountains of Utah.

Hero image courtesy of Sundance Institute