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The 40th Sundance film festival is underway in Utah

A view of Park City's Main Street during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/© 2024 Sundance Institute / Photo by Stephen Speckman
A view of Park City's Main Street during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Maeve Conran: Thanks for talking to us today.

Emily Cohen: Thanks for having me.

Maeve Conran: Well, you've just returned from the Sundance Film Festival. This is something I'm sure most people listening will be familiar with, but maybe not know a whole lot about. It takes place annually in Utah, but it has massive significance, not just for the filmmakers who get to have their work screened, but also for community members in the vicinity and in the broader region who get to participate in this major cultural event.

So tell us exactly what's going on this year at the Sundance Film Festival, then we'll dig into some of the films that you got to see.

Emily Cohen: Well, the festival takes place both in Park City and in Salt Lake City, so there's many theaters where folks can see films.

There's documentaries, there's feature films, there's shorts, there's animation, pretty much anything, and there's celebrities, and I think the most amazing thing is, it's surprisingly accessible.

So you can go to films in the theater, but you can also watch some of the films online.

Maeve Conran: Well, this idea of accessibility, the fact that we have such a major cultural event taking place in the Rocky Mountain West, meaning that folks from Wyoming, where you drove from, maybe neighboring states like Idaho, and of course, folks in Utah, get to go to this event that we often think are just relegated to maybe Los Angeles or New York.

Talk about the impact on the region of having that kind of accessibility to be able to go and participate in something like this.

Emily Cohen: Well, this is a major international festival and to have access to this level of culture of creativity is pretty remarkable. You don't have to go to L.A., you don't have to go to New York or the Cannes Film Festival to see some amazing works.

And now, a lot of these films will be screened and streaming on the services like Netflix and Prime eventually, but it's exciting to be part of that from the jump, from this moment of inception of when it's really birthed into the public sphere.

Maeve Conran: I think one of the exciting things about participating in festivals like this is you get to see the films, but you also get to participate in events like hearing from the filmmakers.

But some of the magic just happens in the streets, in the coffee shops, in the bars, people just connecting with each other. Can you give us a sense of some of those activities that happen at Sundance?

Emily Cohen: Well, there's certainly a lot of industry networking that is happening, you know, it's folks who are working on all sides of the film industry are meeting up for parties and coffee dates.

And I'm on a WhatsApp group for documentary filmmakers, and so you get to meet people who are in your industry. And it's not often that you can do that. Especially in, you know, coming from a place like Jackson, Wyoming, where it's a pretty small community and we don't have access to that many people who are working in a similar sphere.

You know, there was a flash mob for Napoleon Dynamite, that happened. And there's things like that. There's also a lot of talks. There's talks on what it means to be a first-time filmmaker.

So there's professional development opportunities. And it's a big impact on the filmmakers themselves. I know there are many, many film festivals happening, but not all of them have the level of prestige, I suppose, that Sundance has.

Maeve Conran: What does it mean, especially for maybe first-time filmmakers, but certainly independent filmmakers who actually get to get screened there?

Emily Cohen: Well, I think a lot of distribution deals can come out of this. It's a huge amount of exposure to have that stamp of a Sundance premiere or Sundance screening means a lot to these filmmakers.

And it was a surprisingly young crowd, actually, I would say. I mean, there were people from, you know, all ages, but for example, there was a director's talk after the animated shorts and most of the directors were there, and I'd say everyone was probably under the age of 35. It was pretty remarkable. So this is a really great way for folks to launch their careers.

Maeve Conran: Well, you mentioned the animated shorts. I know that was one of the things that you got to see. You saw a couple of documentaries. One of them, a short documentary that has a very Wyoming connection as well, about the Wind River Reservation. Tell us about that.

Emily Cohen: It's called The Widening Path and it is just a reflective and beautifully shot film and it's about an Eastern Shoshone medical student who's actually studying at the University of Utah, and she spent summers on the Wind River Indian Reservation helping her grandfather.

And he dies, she returns to drinking. So the film is really exploring grief, it's exploring substance abuse, connection to the land, and just the challenges that some Indigenous people face, and it's a local, sort of local film.

And the other documentary that I saw was called Agent of Happiness, and I loved this. And it follows one of the so-called agents, or I think what we would think of as a census taker, working for the Bhutanese government to measure people's happiness levels.

The Bhutanese government is famous for having this happiness index, the Gross National Happiness Index of sorts, and so this census taker, the main character, visits people from various walks of life, it's farmers, families, asking them about their life and it's just very poignant, assessing things like how many cows do you have, but also how much do you worry, what kind of sleep are you getting?

And then he rates everyone on this metric and index of how happy they are. It's very elegantly filmed. There's a lot of tender moments.

Maeve Conran: Well, you mentioned the animated shorts. You went to that and you saw the panel discussion as well with the folks featured in that. So when we talk about animated shorts, give us a sense of what that looks like.

Emily Cohen: There's so many kinds of animation, there's more traditional drawings, pen and ink. And then there's stopgap animation. My favorite one was a stop animation or stopgap short called Bug Diner, and it's very edgy and silly, and I definitely recommend watching that.

Some of these (animated shorts) were really violent. Some of them were really sexual. So it was not really what you would think of as animation. And it's definitely not for kids.

Maeve Conran: Well, I know this was your second time going to the festival. So what were your big takeaways from this time, either just from what happens in the community, outside of the screenings, or maybe something that you saw on screen?

Emily Cohen: My big takeaway is just how refreshing it is to get out of town and be a part of something bigger than myself and getting outside of Wyoming and being part of this creative world of film and of ideas and kind of getting a little bit of a jump start on what might be coming down the pike.

Maeve Conran: Emily Cohen, executive director with KHOL in Jackson, Wyoming, thanks so much for sharing your experiences from the Sundance Film Festival.

Emily Cohen: Thanks for having me.

 Copyright 2024 Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KDNK.

Maeve Conran