Arts movie

Sundance Film Festival 2023

A first-timer’s perspective

The Sundance Film Festival made its return to the theaters of Salt Lake City and Park City in Utah this past January. Organized by the Sundance Institute[1], the festival is the largest independent film festival in the United States, reviewing submissions from all around the globe to compile a program spanning any and all genres. Filmmakers and film enjoyers alike flock towards the snowy towns for ten days of festivities, I myself being one of them. 

Instead of getting a press pass, I chose to volunteer at the festival, allowing me a behind-the-scenes look at the operations while still being able to ‘fest’ (e.g. watch films). I met volunteers who’d been volunteering at the festival for several years, volunteers who were film students at the nearby universities, and first time volunteers like myself.

From the first Saturday (Jan. 21) to Tuesday (Jan. 23), I was stationed at the Grand Theatre[2] down in Salt Lake as part of the theater crew. Theater crew volunteers are divided into two groups: ‘theater in’ and ‘theater out’. ‘Theater in’ works inside the  theater itself, acting as ushers. ‘Theater out’ works outside the theater, guiding patrons to their respective ticket lines. I was on the ‘out’ team for all but one of my shifts, so I saw what was essentially the ‘buildup’ to the screening itself. Ticket holders started lining up as early as an hour prior (sometimes even earlier) to the screening time[3]. There was a couple on a first date, cinephiles trying to watch as many films as possible, families and friends there for a good time, and travelers from out of state — all gathered under the umbrella of Sundance to experience a few hours of a different reality.

Before attending, I only knew Sundance as an independent film festival, which it is, but it’s also more than that — it’s a community bonding event. In addition to the regular festival screenings, Sundance hosts community and school screenings of some of its films, and I had the opportunity to work a shift on both. Community screenings are free and open to any Utah resident. The community film that was screened on my shift was Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out (dir. Jake Van Wagoner), which led to a lot of kids dressing up as aliens for the screening.  Local high schools are also invited to special school screenings, during which students take a field trip out to the theater to watch a Sundance film — the one we screened on my shift was Bad Press (dir. Rebecca Landsberry-Baker), a documentary about an Indigenous reporter’s fight for free press.

When I wasn’t working, I used my volunteer vouchers to catch some of the festival’s films. In chronological order, I saw Cat Person (dir. Susanna Fogel) at the Rose Wager, Radical (dir. Christopher Zalla) at the Broadway, Past Lives (dir. Celine Song)[4] at the Redstone, You Hurt My Feelings (dir. Nicole Holofcener) at the Rose Wagner again, and The Accidental Getaway Driver (dir. Sing J. Lee) at the Megaplex. Now, why go all the way to Sundance to watch these movies if they’ll just come out closer to me later in the year? Not all films at Sundance get picked up for distribution, so for some movies, Sundance might be the only place you’ll be able to see them. Moreover, not all films that get picked up for distribution will be released with the same cut as Sundance. For example, the version of Radical I saw was not the final cut, and the version of Infinity Pool (dir. Brandon Cronenberg) that premiered was rated NC-17[5], unlike the rated R cut that’s currently in theaters. The filmmakers are also often present for a Q and A after a screening. Out of the films I saw, only one of them didn’t have a Q and A at the end.

Above all, it’s the atmosphere of Sundance. If you have any affinity at all for film, being in an environment where there are films at every hour is just incredible. You can be standing in line or sitting in your seat and just start talking to the people next to you. You compare which films you’ve seen already, which films you haven’t seen but want to see, which ones you liked, which ones you hated, Sundance films and non-Sundance films. One person I stood next to had seen somewhere between ten or fifteen films by the fifth day of the festival. While waiting for a screening, I overheard a conversation about someone’s disdain for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and their quest to find someone else who shared in that disdain.

Some films that I didn’t get a chance to see but wish I had seen[6]: Eileen (dir. William Oldroyd), Rye Lane (dir. Raine Allen Miller), Theater Camp (dir. Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon), The Persian Version (dir. Maryam Keshavarz), Cassandro (dir. Roger Ross Williams), Sometimes I Think About Dying (dir. Rachel Lambert),  Birth/Rebirth (dir. Laura Moss), Fancy Dance (dir.  Erica Tremblay), and Magazine Dreams (dir. Elijah Bynum). This is by no means a comprehensive list — Sundance screened close to a hundred feature films this year — but it’s a taste of how much there is to look forward to.

So, would I go back to Sundance again? A hundred times yes.


[1] Named after founder Robert Redford’s role in his film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

[2] Located in Salt Lake Community College, the Grand was named when someone walked into the establishment and remarked something along the lines of “Oh, what a grand theater”.

[3] All ticket holders are guaranteed a seat, so it becomes a matter of which seat you get.

[4] If I had to pick a favorite of the ones I’d seen, hands down Past Lives.

[5] Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see this cut, only the theatrical cut.

[6] Aka I sincerely hope they get picked up for distribution so I can watch later.