What I Learned from Going to Sundance (Virtually)

I hung out with producers and film editors in virtual reality

Group photo from the function (courtesy of Emma Ishida)

Remember randos?

Life in quarantine has shrunk the number of opportunities we have to shoot the shit with strangers. So I was surprised when I was afforded an opportunity to do so in the unlikeliest of virtual places: the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Writer Rachel Syme captured this sentiment beautifully today

I reached out to a few friends of mine who are casual film enthusiasts. We used to buy tickets and take the T across Boston to go see selected shorts at the Institute of Contemporary Art. It had become a winter tradition. I didn’t think much of seeing the Sundance shorts this year — I just knew I wanted to hang out with my girls on Zoom and take part in our tradition again, recovering some semblance of winters in college.

Every night since this past weekend, we’ve hopped on a call and perused the selections we had access to with our “explorer passes” ($25 for the indie series and some shorts). We took part in an audiovisual experience called “7 Sounds,” a meditation on the power of audio in which the opening screen told us to lie in our beds (but I was characteristically busy making a really complicated dinner with béchamel sauce instead). We were struck by the animated shorts—in particular, one called Ghost Dogs. It depicted a dog languishing in a dirty, bright house with rain pouring outside, while “ghost dogs” with anthropomorphic bodies terrorized it.

It wasn’t until Day 3 that we noticed we also had access to the festival’s VR world, made up of dozens of rooms in which we could chat with strangers. With our faces superimposed onto champagne glasses in one such room, we hung out for hours, experiencing a strange virtual intimacy.

“Are you all filmmakers?” a woman asked when she saw us chilling in that room. My friend responded that we were film enthusiasts. She proceeded to tell us about the process of shooting and editing her film, Homeroom, which follows a group of Oakland high schoolers. She told us about the challenges of shooting on Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic and the students’ involvement in Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Though we hadn’t seen the film, the story took shape for us and we expressed our support effusively.

Then we met the maker of Ghost Dogs. I asked him about the setting of the film and he said it came to him in a recurring dream. He’d been ruminating on the concept, drawing those characters, for months. He told us how he’d voiced the characters and about their conceptual origins.

I told the people we encountered a bit about my work; I learned Premiere in a mad dash over the summer to produce a video for BuzzFeed News but am in no way a filmmaker. As a creative, though, our conversations made me want to be a filmmaker. I voiced that desire and the actual filmmakers in the room took it totally seriously and encouraged me to start.

A recurring theme in our conversations with people in the room with the champagne glasses—whether they were Sundance employees, artists or fellow festival-goers—was how refreshing it felt to speak to each other in the common language of the art we were experiencing. A lot of us felt it had dissolved some of the barriers between filmmakers and film appreciators. The power of that in a gatekept industry can’t really be understated.

“The inequities in the movie business [have] kind of a feedback effect,” Sundance curator Shari Frilot told the Los Angeles Times. “You have certain communities that are privileged and are able to touch the equipment. Then you have movies that are privileged because of who stands at the gateway of festivals or studios. That’s the audience with very specific kinds of films that affect and feed who you are and who you think the world is. It has not served all of us very well.”

Watching Sundance films and discussing them with their makers reminded me of how starved we all are for spaces to talk about art. And how much fun it is to talk about art with artists. And how sweet it is to talk to randos on the internet and feel OK about it. I hope 2021 brings more virtual reality and more interconnectedness. When and if we do return to a version of life as it was before the pandemic, I hope cultural institutions like Sundance lower their barriers to entry and recreate the openness and receptivity of those VR worlds. Until then, I’ll meet you in the room with the champagne glasses.

Associate Manager, Audience Development at Medium