A Film Critic’s First Journey into the Belly of the Beast: Sundance Film Festival ‘18

01/31/2018


Each January, 40,000 cinephiles and film industrialists head to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, the largest exhibition of new independent films in the country. I never imagined I’d be hauling myself up a snowy mountain with them, but here we are! With numbing stints in grantmaker communications, publishing, and web editorial, my “career path” as a writer has resembled my NYC borough’s very own Cyclone roller coaster. It wasn’t until I caught myself feverishly journaling about movies on my lunch breaks that I realized I might be onto something.
During last year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF), I was awarded a coveted seat in the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy; the program’s an annually-occurring crash course in film criticism that includes panels with esteemed working critics (Molly Haskell, anyone?) and a Class A press badge for NYFF. If you like writing about film and are based in NYC or open to traveling here for the Festival, I can’t recommend this program enough. It offered me tips and publication credits that, three months later, helped me feel confident enough to apply for Sundance press credentials and pitch editors during and ahead of the Festival.

Some film writing staples.

Because I’d covered a smaller film festival before, my biggest concerns in the weeks leading up to Sundance were organizational and environmental. I rectified the former by making a Google spreadsheet with the name, screening time, and location of the movies I hoped to see and the interviews I planned to conduct. It took three evenings to get my schedule fully fleshed out, but my “Paper Mom,” as I called it, saved me several times during Sundance. As far as my weather anxieties went: a bomb cyclone hit New York the week before I left for Sundance. The massive subzero snowstorm gave me, a balmy Southern state native, a serendipitous chance to practice layering for the first time in my life. If you’re also cold-blooded and considering attending Sundance one day, see my supplies suggestions at the end of this post. 
I attended the Festival for seven of its eleven days, from January 20 through the January 26. Here’s a run-down of what that looked like.

Saturday, January 20

Portrait of a critic who has already lost her gloves.

I’m staying in Park City’s Deer Valley with a batch of amiable West Coast critics who were seeking people to throw down for a shared condo.  
As I quickly learn, all Park City buses–which are free to ride–inevitably lead to Main Street (a nexus for Sundance parties) and Old Town Transit Center, a hub where you can switch to another bus if you’ve hopped on the wrong line. The bus system here is color-coded but unlike NYC’s MTA, you only have to remember one number per color. Easy stuff.
Today, I catch the following screenings:
The Kindergarten Teacher
We The Animals
Lizzie
Bisbee ‘17
It’s 10 p.m. or so by the time I return to the Deer Valley condo. I quickly draft up a review of Lizzie, a biopic about the purported murderess Lizzie Borden starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, and send it to my editor at Autostraddle; it’s up by Monday morning and the film has found a distributor by the end of the week.
Part of the excitement of covering a film festival is the ‘early in’: I can contribute to the conversation about a film as it premieres, hold off for a wide release, or write a broader, more thoughtful essay at some other point in its lifecycle. Film writing is often like wine pairing.

Sunday, January 21

Sunday’s slate includes:
Colette
Wildlife
The Tale

Sundance press and industry screenings are held at Holiday Village Cinemas.

Less is sometimes more, I’m learning. I really cherished two of today’s biographical features: The Tale explores the ways we understand traumatic experiences as children and again as adults. With Laura Dern as the lead, The Tale follows her journey to make contact with the running coach who sexually abused her in youth; its kaleidoscopic approach to memory is anything but conservative. Colette, a humor-riddled biography about the unsung French author, also spars with patriarchal forces that work to silence women.
I hope to write about both of these in the future; need more time to chew on them.

Monday, January 22

I screen another quartet today:
Kusama – Infinity
Burden
Seeing Allred
Assassination Nation
Tuesday, January 23

The Sundance Filmmaker Co-Op on Main Street is a great place to find hot chocolate, free Wi-Fi, or some peace of mind.

Phew, what a whirlwind! Sometimes you’re forced take a gamble at Sundance, pursuing an interview with talent before you’ve even seen their latest work. Luckily, with the help of my “Paper Mom,” I am able to catch Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post adaptation mere hours before interviewing her. Between the Cameron Post screening and interview, I am also able to squeeze in some interview time with Elise McCave, who is the savvy head of film at Kickstarter.
After that, I am able to attend three more screenings:
Dark Money
Never Goin’ Back
Ophelia
Just when I’m ready to crash, I experience a little more Sundance press magic. My editor at Fandor was in dire need of Sundance coverage and, lucky us, I’m in a position to deliver. I agree to write a round-up of three films set in Montana—Wildfire, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Dark Money—that are premiering at Sundance 2018.
Wednesday, January 24
My “Montana round-up” is up at Fandor by the time I woke up.
And off to my next batch of screenings:
Quiet Heroes
American Animals
King in the Wilderness
Madeline’s Madeline
Thursday, January 25
I wake up this morning and pen a review of Quiet Heroes, the documentary about the AIDS epidemic in Utah that I saw yesterday, per my Fandor editor’s request. It’s up in a matter of hours. I could get used to such a quick turnover!
Then, I go to my last screening of Sundance 2018: Hale Country This Morning, This Evening. Such a bittersweet moment, saved for what might’ve been my favorite film of the festival.
Friday, January 26
No sleep ‘til Brooklyn! I am homeward bound today.

Back in Brooklyn with Hedy Lamarr and Peter Strickland.

Because I missed the press and public Sundance screenings of the new documentary on Joan Jett, I solicit a screener link from her publicity team. Much to my surprise, I receive a response and a film to watch in a matter of minutes. By the time the flight from Salt Lake City has begun its descent into JFK, I’ve wrapped a review and sent it to my editor at Autostraddle.
One Lyft ride home later, and I’ve crashed before I can undress.
Saturday, January 27
Sundance 2018, in summary:
30 films seen (including pre-screenings in NYC)
2 interviews conducted
0 pandemic flus acquired
15 pieces of writing to finish
…Until next year!
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If you head to Sundance and want to stay warm, I can attest to the power of the following:

  • 6-Inch Premium Waterproof Timberland Boots – Timbs were a staple of the Dirty South hip-hop culture that reared me; as luck would have it, they also make for solid winterwear. (Timberland.com, $170)
  • Ice cleat elastics – Because Park City is a perpetual cycle of freezing, thawing, and snowing, ice patches are inevitable; these fit over most shoes and help you get a good grip on bad terrain. (Amazon Prime, $9.97)
  • Nike Pro Hyperwarm Hood – This sheer ski-mask will insulate your nose, throat, cheeks, and sensitive facial extremities (Modell’s, $30)
  • Uniqlo HEATTECH Extra Warm Leggings – Most of the products in the HEATTECH line are light and effective enough to wear under your favorite jeans or as pajama bottoms; these kittens literally saved my @ss countless times. (Uniqlo.com, $19.90)
  • Gloves from the Fresh Market on Park Avenue – If you’re in Park City and suffer a glove casualty on a bus or in a dark theater, you can nab a new set here for an easy $0.99.

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Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
An avid Submittable user since 2010, Sarah Fonseca’s essays and film writing have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, IndieWire, Lenny Letter, Math Magazine, Posture Magazine, Slate, and them. You can read more of her work at sarahfonseca.com.

Sarah Fonseca