An hour before my first Sundance Premiere, I am unexpectedly mesmerized not by a Sundance related element, but by Jess King’s rhinestone-studded spin shoes. David Bowie blasts through my headphones, levitating both ear drums and spin shoes of my own. “Ground control to Major Tom,” she sings. I murmur along.
David Bowie didn’t fit into a box. No category, just essential and influential space. And perhaps, Sundance too, can no longer be beholden to one definition. What is it that we want Sundance to be? An interactive networking event? A inspiring experience that drums up your inner energy, courage, and wizardry to craft your own projects? An ignitor of conversations? All of the above?
My guess, having only been to the online festival but also living in to a mountain town, is that the cold mountain air drenched with possibility and talent is what stimulates the creative spirit in the Sundance environment. One knows that what you see now may one day be seen by many more; that you’ve been given an early gift not only of the film but of the conversations and connections afterwards. The knowledge that right now, in January of 2022, a film hits differently to you, a different note playing among different air, and when it hits and floats into screens, big and small, upon distribution it will be different, is a weighty gift and responsibility.
Sundance gives space, both metaphorical and physical. Sundance gives the room to breathe, create, and sit back and see the event from afar. There seems to be magical mysterious energy the infiltrates your senses and begins to allow your ideas to take shape (or maybe that’s just my coffee). In many ways, this year provides even more. When you step away from the computer, the space is yours. The personal mixture for me of personal writing and pitches, alongside Sundance films, is truly heaven, And it’s probably something unique to the online experience (not sure I’d be doing that amongst the parties and the hotel). And of course, that intricate, unique, and intangible world of NFTs can come to life in this online playground.
Despite our best efforts, there are some moments that fail to transcend our online reality. The anticipation and intense feelings that play out during the Sundance trailer at the start of a film, or really in a festival of any kind, are still there even if just transferred over headphones. But the spontaneity of it all, the possibility of following newfound strangers into a film you might not have selected at first but have been convinced to give a go, that spontaneity is not replaced. The viewing experience, without the expected applause of appreciation at the end, the commiseration of tears, or the echoes of laughter is limited by both set up and bandwidth.
And yet there are incredible, wonderful, and fun elements that would have never taken place in-person. One can still have semi-random, computer-camera assisted conversations, and the amount of courage needed to enter and leave said conversations is significantly less anxiety provoking than in-person experiences. Finding yourself at a random table with the Director of the Festival? Experiencing Virtual and Augmented Reality from the comfort of your couch? Diving into your own writing and proposals after being inspired Jumping seamlessly from lounge to lounge, party to party, conversation to conversation? Having one of the original Janes of the Jane Collective happen to log onto your Q and A after watching “Call Jane?” All made possible by virtual screenings and the spaceship.
The key word is laughter, an exercise and a reaction sorely missed these days. Sundance has given that to us in troves. Tripping around the spaceship running your avatar while trying to chase someone down left me in stitches. Discussing the art of martinis with some of the Sundance staff in a virtual sushi restaurant? Someone commented “I haven’t laughed this hard in days.”
It’s those moments, where we are still playful and curious and humorous and light hearted, that make Sundance something special. A special space oddity.