What Sundance Film Festival Feels Like to a PUC Film Student

(Spectrumbot) #1

We stepped out of baggage claim and into the cold Salt Lake City wind. After cramming inside a shuttle car, my fellow students and I set off to Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival. On the long drive to the hotel, we got to know our driver, a local university student studying geology. One of us asked her why she chose the field, and answer was that she was always fascinated by nature. As a kid, bring back handfuls of funny looking rocks form family hikes. When we arrived at the hotel, she helped us unload our bags and we thanked her for the ride.

Sundance is a different world. From the moment we stepped into the hotel lobby, the atmosphere felt different. Strangers talk about what films they saw that day, a given conversation starter in every corner of Park City. They share how they got there, where they’re going, and where they want to go. A woman next to the hotel fireplace told a stranger her plan to become an actress in Australia. An aspiring young film critic spoke with a journalist in the corner, telling him about the movies his aunt shared with him when he was a kid. Everywhere you turn, there’s a story being told, on the screen or off.

The first screening we went to, “Last Days in the Desert,” was a unique retelling of Jesus’ final days of temptation in the desert. What made the film stand out was how profoundly human Jesus seemed. He struggles with his father, converses with the devil, and is torn over the situation of a struggling family he meets. After the screening, we attended the Windrider Forum, along with students from Christian schools like Fuller Seminary and Biola university, for a Q&A with the director. Rodrigo Garcia, who wrote and directed the film, was intently focused on the story of Jesus outside of any strictly religious context. “The attraction to Jesus is very human. We connect to him, even if we are not Christian,” he explained. Garcia seemed to be opening the story of Jesus to a wider audience by narrowing into his story and character. The film was uniquely personal for a story taken from the Bible. It didn’t try to grasp onto the bigger picture or answer any question. Instead he presented Jesus as a child of God, someone anyone can relate to.

The Windrider Forum was a unique place at Sundance. Gathering in a church, groups of theology and film students from across the country discussed the films they saw through a spiritual lens. The most important experiences in my time at the festival happened here, not in a big theater, but a small church meeting hall. One evening, the forum invited up and coming filmmakers to screen shorts with a following Q&A. One of these was “The Other Side,” an Israeli short film by Khen Shalem. The story revolves around a boy trapped in the middle of Israeli and Palestinian conflict, looking at a very real problem through the eyes of an innocent child. When asked what he hoped to achieve through the film, Shalem was very humble. “As a filmmaker,” he said, “I cannot stop the problem. This is my way to help, to remind people of the other side of the conflict.” This was a theme through a majority of the filmmaker Q&As. Why were you drawn to the story? Why did you tell it?

One of the most profound experiences I had revolved around the film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” Written and directed by Chloe Zhao, it tells the story of a young man in the Lakota tribe, fixed on leaving his home on Pine Ridge Reservation but conflicted about leaving his younger sister. Directly after the film’s screening, Zhao led a Q&A in the theater with the cast and crew. When someone asked the young actors how they felt about the film after watching it, the youngest girl began to cry. Zhao explained that the lives of the characters largely reflected the lives of the actors. In one scene, the young sister walks through the burnt ruins of her home after a fire. As the film was shot entirely on location, the scene took place in the young actresses’ actual home, which had also been destroyed in a fire. Zhao found a middle ground between documentary and narrative, spending time on the plantation to know the characters and actors, shaping the film through the stories she heard.

When asking the question “why do we tell stories,” or “why are we making films.” Zhao’s film persistently comes to mind, as does Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert” or Shalem’s “The Other Side.” Each filmmaker expressed a feeling of responsibility to tell these stories on a deeper level. They told the stories because they needed to be told. As film students in an Adventist institution, we strive to create and look at media through a spiritual lens. This is what the films we watched at Sundance were doing. They told stories that weren’t entirely fabricated or made for a target demographic in a boardroom. Instead, these were stories that already existed, waiting for filmmakers to find them. It’s clear that Zhao made her film because she felt like she had to. The story called for her and she responded.

When it comes to media in the church, the questions I often hear tend to revolve around the content, the “what are we making?” Sundance felt like a gentle reminder of the “why?” As Christians, why are we trying to make films? Why are we telling stories? The answer is simply because we’re called to. I personally did not go to the Sundance Film Festival expecting a spiritual experience, but in the end that’s what I got. I now feel a new sense of responsibility as a Christian filmmaker to look closer at the world around me, and keep a lookout for people’s stories, from our shuttle driver to the guests in our hotel lobby. If we were called by God to love one anther, what better way to do that to listen and connect?

Taylor Smith is a Film Studies major at Pacific Union College.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6734

(k_Lutz) #2

Ah, stories … the guts of post-modernism. The modern world denied the story, and we fell in line, groundless, disconnected, even from our own family, and most of all, tradition. It is in finding our connectedness that we matter at all, to each other, to humanity, regardless of the dehumanising march of progress.

Thank-you, Taylor, for your endearing perspective of SFF. Having lived a number of years in SLC, it was mostly all about who was seen with whom, a celebrity shoot-out.

Trust God.

(Bill Garber) #3


I like you take on the Modern belief that there is reality the underlies stories and that the reality on which the stories arise can be boxed up with a kind of corrugated mathematical proof. Indeed the Modern world came to deny the Story, as you observe.

The Post Modern world came to reclaim the story, to reassert the belief that reality comes out of the story, rather than the other way around.

Jesus, at least for a time, taught only with stories.

Testimony trumped theology at every turn starting with the parables of Jesus.

The Seventh-day Adventist church was founded on a story, the proof of which lived in the hearts of the founders, not the scripture. There was nothing Modern about the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist church. In reality we were Post Modern, if you will, 120 years ahead of time. Talk about a prophetic movement!

As Elder Ted Wilson’s right-hand evangelist Mark Finley recently noted, the church is seeking those for whom ‘the certainty of prophecy’ has meaning. This feels like Modern Millerism all over again. It is not Seventh-day Adventism as it was founded or as the church embraced its story amidst perpetuating efforts to anchor the story to something rational rather than to anchor the church to the story and see where the founding storyteller, the Holy Spirit in our lives, takes us … next.

What we make of our story in light of the story of Easter morning is telling.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

we were all sitting around on deck heading to Luzon, when one fellow from the coal mines of West Virginia, told the following story. “We were sent by company in a 2 and a half ton truck to pick up dynamite for the mine. when we got there, they said they were all out. all they had was a half ton of loose gun power. we accepted and loaded it on the truck. on the way back, I was riding on top of the gun power when someone in the cab lite a cigarette. he through the lighted match out the window. it flew back into the gun power. It burned almost half of the gun power before I could put it out.” someone one up and said “really!” I think his first Name was Kevin. Tom Z

(Kim Green) #5

Indeed, Taylor…there is no better way to “grow” your spirituality by caring about people enough to listen and connect. So many people think that by presenting “facts” that those vital connections are forged but they are mistaken. The whole human narrative is stories, as well as most of the bible, and we respond emotionally to them- as humans. Thank-you for sharing your story.

(Steve Mga) #6

“most of the Bible”.
Half of the stories are left out of the Bible.
Women. The ones who made it all possible to have the list of “begats”.
Almost 100% of Biblical women are nameless. Their contribution to family, lost in time.
How did Mother’s contribute in making boys [those are the only worthy ones in the bible] into men?
Only a few Sisters are mentioned.
Even today, when the bible is opened in self study, group study, academic study, no one cares about the faceless, nameless, unmentioned Women of the Bible.
Maybe this is why in our Modern Reading and Teaching of the Bible, Women today in the Church are still Faceless, Nameless, Unworthy of mention. Un-Worthy of having a position in God’s Kingdom Church.


Hello Steve,

Only for the time being are they “lost.” But in heaven their names will spoken of forever.