Sundance: My Story of Change

Sundance 1996. I’m a newcomer to Hollywood, excited to be where it all happens, and struggling to figure out where I might belong. Sundance is something all us Hollywood freshmen know about, but it seems impossibly cool and mysterious and out of reach for lowly assistants and mail room runners. But I’m the very definition of young and hungry, so I boldly rent a low-end Park City condo and proceed to fill it with a dozen friends and friends of friends and two of their friends, each chipping in $20 a night to cover my leap of faith. We fly en mass from Burbank, land in snowy Salt Lake, and make our way to the Promised Land. It’s everything we hoped. We stand in ticket lines for hours outside in the cold, see a dozen movies, spot indie stars, and feel hopeful. Even the grocery store seems filled with promise, buzzing with people gathering supplies for house parties. We pool our money for peanut butter, bread, coffee, and wine — and have parties of our own when we stumble in late every night, comparing our adventures and movies we’ve seen. The big film is WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE and I spend part of the time feeling like Dawn Weiner, trying to fit in and not quite making it. But mostly, I feel a giddy pride that I’m even here. I’m not on the inside, but I’ve peered in. I haven’t made it yet but hey, I’m at SUNDANCE.

Sundance 1997. One year later and so much has changed. I’ve created a tv show and it’s been greenlit. But on the heels of that high, my world has come crashing down. My beloved kid brother Stevie, just days past his 19th birthday, hops a train from Texas, makes friends on the streets of Hollywood, and ends up dying tragically in a squat fire just down the street from my apartment. I learn from a friend that director Penelope Spheeris had been shooting a documentary about gutterpunks, the kids who hop trains and live on the streets of Hollywood. I reach out to her through her agent, faxing a note about Stevie along with a photo — just in case he had somehow crossed her path. She calls. I go to her house and see the footage she shot of him before his death, along with the news footage of the fire. Two months later, I’m at the Park City Library at Sundance, bawling my eyes out at that footage masterfully edited into her film THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, PART III. It’s dedicated to him. I sit in the front row — an early morning screening — and see his beautiful face one more time. The term “larger than life” hits me because that’s what I have now, him as he was in his last days captured on film, larger than life up on that screen in the early snowy Park City morning. I cry alone, hard, and ugly in the dark theater. I am deeply cut, raw, furious, and sad but so incredibly grateful. I have been able to see him as he was, alive and funny and sweet one last time. It is a gift to me and to all who loved him. Penelope has given me that, and Sundance has given me that.

Sundance 1998, 2001, 2007, plus a few more years I can’t remember. I keep coming back to Sundance, drawn to the community of artists. I never have a film there, I never get into the cool parties, but I come anyway. The styles change, the hot names fade and others take their place. I’m not as star struck as I was, not awed by celebrity, nor as worried about what to wear or who to meet. I never buy a pass, I always stand in line, and some years I see more films than others. But I keep coming back.

I may have stood in this line.

Sundance 2012. I’ve moved into film and am producing a documentary of my own. We’ve been in production for two years already when the director and one of our film subjects are invited to do a panel at the Festival. While I still don’t have a film in the festival, I finally have an official reason to be here after all these years. The film — which will eventually be called BENDING THE ARC — has been selected for support by a partnership program of the Sundance Documentary Film Program and the Skoll Foundation called “Stories of Change.” The panel is being presented by Stories of Change and is happening at the Egyptian, a classic Sundance venue. I’ve spent many hours in the past waiting in the ever-present line in the alley beside the theater, hoping to get tickets for a film or panel but this time, I get to go right in. Waiting in the greenroom, I feel giddy but shy around all of the important people involved and try to just blend in. I’m tagging along with the director — I wasn’t technically invited— but I’m the one who handled the prep on our side and am the one who suggested the film subject as a panelist when their first request wasn’t available. It’s being moderated by Sally Osberg, head of the Skoll Foundation, someone I admire enormously and I’m worried about things going well. And as it turns out, there is a last minute problem with our panel — a final adjustment of which questions will best serve Sally’s slated discussion and our panelists. Despite my nervousness, I jump in and make suggestions because I know these panelists and this film better than I know my own family at this point. It goes well and I can breathe again but as we’re walking out of the Egyptian toward a fancy hosted dinner on Main Street, Cara Mertes (the legendary director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program) looks straight at me and says “I saw what you did.” I freeze, cataloguing my possible crimes, thinking maybe I overstepped. Instead she says, “You handled that well. You’re really a good producer.” I almost trip. I stammer something unintelligible. I call my mom from the bathroom of the fancy dinner, crying happily. I repeat the words to myself as I walk back to my hotel in the snow. It’s one of the best things anyone has ever said to me. I take it to heart. Deeply. And I will need it.

The panel / The Egyptian

Sundance 2013. BENDING THE ARC is STILL not complete but I’ve worked on another film in the meantime and I’ve been nominated for an Oscar. I’m celebrating now at Sundance with the creative community that means the most to me — the Skoll-Sundance Stories of Change team. Sandy Herz, the co-creator of the program with Cara, has become one of my most trusted voices of encouragement and reason as I navigate the increasingly challenging production of my documentary. The community these two women created — the artists and changemakers, the Sundance and Skoll staff teams that support them — they’re what I look forward to most when I land in Salt Lake every January now, and they’re who I want to raise a glass with at a fancy dinner on Main Street that the 1996 me could have only dreamed about.

STORIES OF CHANGE CREW: Jehane, Wendy, me, Cara, Sandy

Sundance 2015. The never-ending production of BENDING THE ARC is almost over but we need money to edit. At this point, it’s pivoted from the original idea and has become a deep dive look at the sweeping 30 year history of a group of friends who fought the global medical establishment and changed history. It took me years to convince the film subjects to let me make a documentary about their lives and now I have everything on the line to get this made right and earn the trust they put in me. There’s a group of investors that meet at Sundance every year and we’ve scored the opportunity to pitch to 80 of them at once. I can’t afford a hotel or condo, so the investment group has set me up in a spare room of a mansion in the mountains above Park City. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever stayed at Sundance and the most intimidating. I’m assigned “the observatory” at the top of four flights of stairs, a tiny room filled with an extensive collection of clown art and featuring a gorgeous overhead window showcasing the massive night sky. I lay on a blow-up mattress and look up at the stars, practicing my pitch over and over again, “This is a story about infuriatingly stubborn, persistent people who burn with a white-hot intensity to change what they think is wrong — and have the brilliance and strategy to make it happen.” I caffeinate heavily the next morning, walk nervously into the pitch room, and we nail it. We have the money to complete the film.

Sundance 2016. The film is still not ready but we rush an edit out anyway to make the Sundance deadline. I’m a mix of crushed and relieved when we don’t get in because I know the film that we turned in isn’t the one I wanted to show the world. It needs more work so we keep going. But instead of skipping Sundance, I have a few reasons to go this year: a feature documentary called SONITA that I’m actually in briefly as film subject is premiering, along with the Stories of Change-supported COLLISIONS, a gorgeous VR film directed by Lynette Wallworth and produced by Nicole Newnham that I had a hand in executive producing. History is made at the Egyptian, as COLLISIONS becomes the first VR film to be viewed simultaneously by an entire audience on individual headsets. And I participate in a STORIES OF CHANGE panel, once again representing my film that hasn’t yet seen the light of day but is the beneficiary of an enormous amount of faith by the generous Stories of Change team. It’s an amazing year and I’m so proud to bear witness to the triumph of my friends and fellow filmmakers, but part of me wonders when I’ll finally earn the trust that’s been advanced to me.

COLLISIONS making history.

Sundance 2017. After five years of begging for the rights, six years of production, and almost two years of editing, BENDING THE ARC is complete. And this time, we are ACCEPTED INTO SUNDANCE. My amazing community rallies around me and we work to bring dozens of people in from around the world — Haiti, Rwanda, Peru — to Park City to see their lives up on the big screen. The deeply cool Tabitha Jackson, who now heads the Sundance Documentary Film Program masterfully moderates a panel with our film team and film subjects the night before the film and it’s surreal to finally be doing a panel for the film with the film actually finished. It’s the snowiest Sundance on record and we premiere in the midst of a blizzard. I have a head cold (aka “Sundance flu”) so bad that I end up getting an IV in my cheesy mountain-lodge-themed condo, the banana bag full of vitamins hanging off a giant carved bear statue. But it does not matter because I AM AT SUNDANCE WITH A FILM — a film that I have fought my ass off for, with a community that I love and that I have earned my place in. The 1996 me has everything she ever dreamed in those late night conversations with her roommates. And the 1997 me, the one who sat in the Park City library and bawled her eyes out at the gift of the larger-than-life story of her brother…she has come full circle. Because by some stroke of kismet, BENDING THE ARC premieres in that exact same theater. Almost twenty years to the day, instead of sitting in the audience sobbing alone, I am sitting beside the people I have come to love so much, watching them as they see their story play out larger than life on that beautiful screen. I have worked to give them this gift, and now I can see it for what it is. A gift right back to me. This is why anyone does this, to see the audience in this moment, to have your work received and be so completely understood in exactly this way. I am exhausted but deeply satisfied. Over the next year, we’ll show the film to global leaders, policy makers, villagers. Each audience will have enormous meaning, and many will actually lead to real change as a result of our film. But none of them will come close for me personally and emotionally, to this moment, in this place, with these people.

EPILOGUE

Sundance 2018. Just when I thought I wouldn’t be coming back this year, Rick Perez of the Sundance-Skoll team reaches out with news that I’ve won an award that will be presented at Sundance. It’s a “Sustainability Prize” given to a “filmmaker who displayed extraordinary commitment to advancing the impact and engagement of an Stories of Change” project. It is much welcome news, and even hearing that I’ve won sustains me. I arrive in Park City in the midst of a fresh snowfall, like so many years past. I end up with a mild case of the Sundance flu again, and so I venture out to the grocery story for cold meds and OJ. There’s a big group of young people in front of me in line, pooling their money for coffee and craft beer. They seem giddy, proud of the fact that they’re even here. And yes, they should be. They may not have made it yet but hey, they’re at SUNDANCE.