By Katherine Oostman
For 30 years, Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival has been premiering independent films that dig at the heart of human existence. Showcasing filmmakers from all over the world with distributors like Fox and Sony launching into distribution bidding wars as soon as the lights go up, this festival has become an Oscar-worthy achievement for alternative artists. For two weeks every year, Park City, Utah, becomes a hive of connecting, creating and critiquing. This year, for the first time in history, Asbury University joined the conversation.
Professors Josh Overbay and Sarah Leckie organized an assorted group of nine students in the hopes that they would find inspiration for their filmmaking and challenges for their worldviews. Park City is a tiny ski town where “LA meets NYC,” as Overbay described it; it was also the location of the Olympic trials only a few weeks earlier.
The single street downtown was flooded with celebrities like Selena Gomez, Kurt Russell, Maggie, Gyllenhaal, Mark Duplass, William H. Macy, Glenn Close, Flea, Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, George Takai and many more.
Although the star-factor was high, Sundance provided an equal platform for ordinary film lovers to stand on. Sean O’Connor, a senior on the trip, said, “While Asbury and Wilmore have a tendency to stay in the infamous ‘bubble,’ one thing I loved about the people I met in Park City was that they came from all over and they all wanted to make a difference. It encouraged me to do the same. I went to Sundance so that I could become a better watcher and analyzer of film as well as to figure out how I can eventually make my own independent films.”
Unlike most participants at Sundance, Asbury’s pioneers did not come just to watch films. They also participated in the Windrider Forum, a week-long discussion started by Fuller University ten years ago in order to bring students together to talk about the relationship of faith and film.
Overbay said, “The Windrider Film Forums take participants on a journey of the heart, mind and soul, exploring our common humanity creatively, intellectually and spiritually. It exists to help students critically engage the worldviews presented by various Sundance Filmmakers.”
The forum brings in the creators of popular films at the festival in order to interview them regarding their process and give participants a chance to ask their own questions regarding the meaning of the film. The goal of Windrider, and indeed Asbury’s participation in Sundance in general, Overbay described with a quote from C.S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism:”
“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
In order to jumpstart this dialogue between art and belief, students were required to see at least nine films during that week and write a critique on at least half of them in order to fully process the themes and stories of each.
O’Connor said that, through this exercise, he found a flaw in his own method of approaching films. He said, “I’ve realized that some movies I avoid because of content, and while sometimes that needs to happen, I’ve come to believe that this way of thinking is a little unfair because some of those movies with ‘objectionable content’ can be extremely powerful.”
Since Sundance does not rate its films in any way, viewers are subject to the mercy of the filmmakers and the story they decide to tell. Occasionally this resulted in indulgent movies in regards to content such as language, violence and sexuality. But although many Sundance films also included these elements, they played a strong part in communicating to the viewer the world of the film and thus the importance of the story’s theme.
Others, such as the infamous film “Blind,” told its story regarding pornography without discretion or much purpose. Although such Sundance films were disappointing, they opened another facet of communication regarding film and faith. O’Connor maintained that, for the most part, Lewis’s surrender approach enforced by Sundance’s decision not to rate its films strengthened O’Connor’s movie-going experience. “Because I went into every film not knowing the hype behind them, I was able to view each film on a clean slate and make up my own opinion on each of them, which was incredibly refreshing,” he said.
In addition to the challenging themes integrated into Sundance films’ stories, students found value in the practical advice given by the filmmakers themselves on the actual process of making a movie. Quotes such as “Celebrate the win,” “Your talent is your desire” and “If you don’t learn to fail, you will fail to learn,” have fueled Asbury students’ own creative journeys.
When asked what inspired her most, junior Hannah Wilcox said, “Honestly, it was viewing these films and hearing how some of them were made with next to nothing. This means as long as you have a great story, crew and cast, you can make a movie as great as the ones at Sundance.”
In 2013, Sundance received 4,044 feature film submissions from all over the globe and selected only 119 to premiere. As the years pass, the number of submissions grows, but the pool of those shown remains the same. This enables viewers to have a varied taste of the art of film ranging the world today. Similarly, the favorite films within the Asbury group were eclectic and cultured. Films like “Better Angels,” “Alive Inside,” “Hellion,” “Ida,” “The Overnighters” and others varied from documentary to black and white Polish cinema. The common theme throughout the favorites were characters who were doing their best to figure out life and struggling for the sake of it. Sundance viewers come from all over to world to hear these stories, which echo their own.
Overall, the students walked away with a positive experience and insight into how to create and view media. Brandon Hendrix, a freshman, noted, “Even though a film might have some really challenging material in it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn something from it. Granted, there are some films that are just indulgent — those should be ignored. But there are other films that are asking the deeper questions and getting people to think. Those films are worth watching because they can help us learn something about who we are as humans and encourage us to do better.”
Professor Overbay found the trip to be a strong beginning for many Asbury Sundance trips to come. He said his most inspiring moment was “to see my students respond to the material presented with openness, honesty, genuine engagement. They demonstrated an exceptional amount of maturity. That was awesome.”
As Asbury looks to its future involvement with the legendary Sundance Film Festival, Wilcox encouraged not only film students to engage with culture but students in other majors, as well.
“You will learn so much about film and faith, and you will also view some of the best and some of the worst movies you have ever seen,” Wilcox said. Like Asbury, Sundance seeks to challenge society and discover the purpose of human existence by looking at all facets of life.