The Sundance Institute hosted a series of outdoor screenings this summer to showcase short and feature-length films that won awards at the virtual Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
Eva Rinaldi, director of Utah Community Programs, said the summer screenings have been successful, noting that the “Summer of Soul” screening at Red Butte Garden got 2,000 RSVPs and 1,400 attendees.
The summer screenings haven’t been without struggles, though.
“I don’t recall us having to face this kind of heat ever before,” Rinaldi said.
Many memorable moments occurred throughout the summer screenings.
Organizers showcased a curated selection of shorts centering BIPOC stories and filmmakers on a mobile LED screen in downtown Salt Lake City. They also pushed through 30 mph winds to successfully screen Sundance 2021 movies “One for the Road” and “Flee” at Utah Olympic Park in Park City.
On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the institute to focus on its online platform to conduct a virtual Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
But these circumstances also expanded the institute’s outreach.
“For the community screenings this past year, we received RSVPs from 27 out of the 29 counties of the state, so our reach and offering was broad, and I think that was meaningful,” Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi also noted that it forced the institute to think differently.
“We have been exploring new ways to reach audiences beyond the large venue format,” Rinaldi said. They’ve also been interested “to work with new partners, especially other non-profits, and offer a variety of locations for people to access” their screenings.
Additionally, the pandemic forced the institute to find outdoor spaces to hold the summer screenings, in adherence to COVID-19 precautions. But this has also allowed them to try to hold screenings at a variety of different venues.
The institute held a couple of screenings at the Redwood Drive-In Theatre in West Valley City, founded 73 years ago in 1948. One film shown at the classic venue was “Jockey,” which won U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Actor at the 2021 Sundance Festival.
During their collaboration with Sugar Space Art Warehouse, the institute showcased “a selection of short films that are from past Sundance Film Festivals and are made by BIPOC filmmakers representing Black, First Nation Native, Brazilian, and Afghan stories,” Rinaldi said.
Mateó Ochoa, senior manager of community programs at the Sundance Institute, is excited about the possibility of Sugar Space as a local venue and its connection to the artists of West Salt Lake.
“Sugar Space works with and for artists [and] they have the space to accommodate,” Ochoa said. “We love the location and venue, with the idea to create a variety of programming beyond the traditional full-length feature film.”
Ochoa believes this forced adaptation has provided a unique opportunity to grow.
“It’s really nice to make these new connections while also making space for us to learn to navigate these experiences because we would love to come back to work with them,” they said. “It’s allowed us to spread our wings a little bit and test new waters while setting a foundation for next year.”
Rinaldi, who has been at the institute for 23 years, is proud that the summer screenings are free to the public.
“At the institute, our mission has stayed true for the 40 years of our existence; we seek to discover and develop independent artists and introduce audiences to their new work,” Rinaldi said.
Although the Sundance Film Festival helps the institute fulfill their mission, Rinaldi is aware that it can be challenging for the local community to access, noting “it’s important that we offer [free] opportunities the rest of the year, and in particular, showcase films that tell stories and highlight experiences that people may not see in traditional theatres.”
Ochoa voiced the importance of amplifying independent films that don’t get as much attention as mainstream films.
“What’s so wonderful about the practice of engaging independent film is that stories that you wouldn’t typically see in premieres have much more visibility,” Ochoa said, adding that creators use the “platform to tell experimental stories, hard stories, vulnerable stories, and that’s what resonates with me the most.”
Ochoa noted that the Sundance Institute tries to provide a space for folks to see films that they resonate with on a deeper level.
Focusing films for high school students
“Marvelous and the Black Hole” was one Sundance movie shown in several schools virtually this year. The film is about a teenager, played by Japanese American actress Miya Cech, navigating her inner demons and dysfunctional family by befriending a children’s party magician. Ochoa felt it was important to give access to this film, especially for students who are a part of the Asian and Pacific Islander community in Utah.
“Although that story doesn’t necessarily encompass the whole Asian and Pacific Islander community, its cultural references were really impactful for a lot of students that were a part of the high school screening,” Ochoa said.
One high school student, who attended the screening virtually, enjoyed the film.
“I think this film perfectly encapsulated teenage angst and feelings of uncertainty with family and growing up,” they said. “I was really happy to see more Asian American representation on screen as well, defying the harmful model-minority myth. Overall, the film was really heartwarming and beautifully done.”
Continuing to grow and adapt to their 20-year-old high school programs to engage with students is a priority for the institute, according to Rinaldi.
To replace in-person programs for high school students previously held at the Sundance Film Festival, the Sundance Institute created a program called “Art of the Short.” The Sundance website describes it as “an online showcase of short films from this year’s festival lineup … to provide students access to independent cinema and the filmmakers behind each project.”
The institute created an online platform called “Co//ab” which first came out of beta in 2019, according to Rinaldi. The program is labeled as a “community platform for creators around the globe,” according to the Sundance website.
For the festival earlier this year, the “Co//ab” team created a curriculum with a discussion guide that goes along with five different shorts for high school teachers across the state of Utah. Ochoa noted that through this in-class activity, the students are being pushed to explore the shorts through a comprehension and writing lens, creating a well-rounded learning experience.
Rinaldi boasted a total of 3,610 students attended this year’s virtual Sundance festival.
Prioritizing programs for college students
“We’ve outreached to colleges for access to the festival both locally and nationally by providing discounted tickets, and curated programs, in particular for film students,” Rinaldi noted.
Additionally, the Sundance Ignite x Adobe Fellowship Program, initially founded in 2015, is a “competitive and year-round artist-development program supporting emerging filmmakers ages 18 to 25 with a year of mentorship and program opportunities,” according to the Sundance website.
Recently, the institute announced its class of 10 young filmmakers that will get to “participate in a year of mentorship, workshops, and receive other support and will have their films screened at Sundance Film Festival: London in August.” Each of the 1,600 applications included a 1- to 15-minute short film to highlight their talent.
Looking forward, the 2022 Sundance Festival will take place online and in person. But even sooner, the Sundance Institute is partnering with the Craft Lake City DIY Festival on Aug. 13-15 to showcase films included in the New Frontier Project.
New Frontier aims to “identify and celebrate creators who explore the opportunities within the newest technologies to push the edges of story conception and craft,” per the Sundance Institute.
Information about this event and others can be found on the Sundance website.