Sundance Film Fest 2020: A female film critic and first-timer’s perspective – Leslie Combemale reports

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As Park City is winding down and shopkeepers are going back to business as usual (hopefully having made a tidy sum from festival goers and temporary rentals), it’s time to look back on Sundance 2020.

It was my first time at the fest, and there are so many things people don’t tell you about it or that you have to experience for yourself. That the time it takes to get from one venue to the next, and that the lines you’ll encounter there can be daunting was widely explained to me. What wasn’t talked about was the kindness, patience, and generosity of the volunteers. When the organizers say the volunteers make it happen, they don’t add that in part that’s because they calm flustered filmmakers, clarify plans for confused film fans, and cheer the folks who aren’t morning people when they drag themselves to an early screening, and cheer the morning people when they fight to stay awake for a midnight show. Talk to groups of volunteers working at specific venues and you’ll find a tight-knit bunch of very different people who trust and respect each other. It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of the Sundance experience, over and above the actual artistry on display all over the town.

I spent a lot of time at the new Latinx House during the fest. (I wrote about it HERE.) I can’t speak enough about the power of belonging it created for those who spent time there, especially the Latinx creators who had been to Sundance in past years and who’d felt like outsiders. The many panels and events there were eye-opening and inspiring. As a female film critic I know what it’s like to work in a world where we are half of the population but only a small percentage of those represented in front of and behind the camera. It is so much worse for Latinx women. To hear so many content creators, activists, and studio representatives talking about ways to change the landscape in a place that was safe and joyous was really beautiful. It can be done, and the founders and supporters of the Latinx House are helping build the way forward.

The atmosphere changes significantly after the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. After that weekend, many of the instillations, special spaces, and lounges disappear off of Main Street. Of course it’s imperative to be there on the first weekend if you want to experience some of the biggest premieres. Still, the calm of mid-fest — Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — is not to be missed. Tickets to film screenings are a lot easier to access, most of the biggest celebrities are gone, and the casts and crew of little, scrappy Sundance indies are still there, appearing at all their screenings, taking questions from the audience, and basking in the appreciation of true film fans. Most of the trucks and traffic on Main are gone, allowing the natural glow of the town to infuse you as you walk around the venues.

Granted this is my first time at Sundance. I know many people say it’s become too commercialized, but I can still feel the joy and enthusiasm of the filmmakers, whether it’s their first or the tenth time with a film in competition. At its heart, Sundance is still about giving voice to new talent, or giving a new opportunity to a talent that has been dormant too long, due to financial or creative challenges. I can only honor that, especially as the fest makes an active effort to make space for diverse perspectives from all genders and cultural viewpoints.

I’m looking forward to next year and seeing how it differs from my experience this year. I was struck by how hard it was to connect with people I already knew while I was at the fest. If journalist colleagues weren’t seeing the same film at the same time, it was nearly impossible to make time to meet. On the other hand, I made lots of new friends, and made great contacts that will help amplify women working above and below the line. It’s exciting to hear about Tabitha Jackson, a female film programmer of color (and a Brit!) being promoted to director of the Sundance Film Festival. I hope to be able to share what additional positive changes have been made in the past year when I attend Sundance 2021. Until then, remember to seek out and speak about all the great films that premiered at Sundance.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.