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The Ebert Scholars on Sundance 2015

We asked the Ebert Scholars to give us a few thoughts on their Sundance 2015 experience. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with these passionate young writers. It's doubtful that this is the last you'll hear from them. Click on their names to read their individual pieces this year.

ANISHA JHAVERI

I attended a “Meet the Industry” event at Sundance where the panelists spent some time discussing the various distinctions and/or roles that popular film festivals serve. With most of its lineup consisting of indies fresh out of production and unseen by audiences as well as the market, Sundance was described as the “discovery festival.” In many ways, I feel that to be an applicable phrase for my personal experience in Park City as well—in terms of the new and exciting films I saw, yes, but also with regard to what the experience brought to light for my still-developing career as a critic. I learned that I could feel completely in my element and almost overwhelmingly challenged at the same time as I worked against the clock to make review deadlines. I learned how truly invigorating it is to surround myself with creative minds who have a fierce love and commitment to telling different stories and supporting independent visions. I learned that the some of the best networking can be done while waiting in line for a screening, bleary-eyed, at 8am. And I learned that despite being a completely unexpected addition to my calendar this year, Sundance was exactly the confirmation I’ve needed that film is where my own passion lies. I’ve emerged from the festival with a renewed motivation to keep watching, keep learning, keep writing. This was an unforgettable experience, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Indiewire, the Sundance Institute, and the Ebert Foundation that it was offered to me.

IBAD SHAH

My first Sundance experience was extraordinary. Watching four movies a day on nothing but five hours of sleep (in a chamber full of snoring, smelly men on creaking bunk beds) might not sound ideal to most, but the payoff of discovering all these movies for myself and meeting the kinds of people that I did made for some of the most exciting two weeks any film lover could possibly ask for. Even just sitting in the lobby of the Park City Marriott and having directors I've always admired like Jennie Livingston ("Paris is Burning") come up to you and start talking to you is a testament to the kind of surreal atmosphere of friendliness and access that the Sundance organizers have nurtured for all these years. Having the privilege of being among the first to contribute my thoughts on the films to publications as renowned as Indiewire or RogerEbert.com is just the icing on the cake. I'm so grateful for everyone who made it happen and for those who made it as fun as it was. It's an unforgettable joy to have taken part of that I will cherish for a long time. 

AN BANH

Sundance 2015 was my first film-festival experience, and it didn't disappoint. I went into it equipped with as many insider tips as I could gather, and ended up picking up a few of my own along the way. Sundance was where I laughed, cried, got drunk sitting by a fire, stood in line for hours, slipped on ice and fell on my butt; where I didn't get to see movies I wanted to see, saw movies I didn't want to see, became very familiar with Fresh Market, and argued fiercely with people about the merits or faults of certain films. In Park City I battled the "Sundance flu" and won, learned the bus system well enough to help other people, and met a ton of amazing people that I wish I could be around all the time. Sundance wasn't always exclusively a good time or a bad time, but it was certainly a singular and unique experience that I won't forget. It was a pulsing thing, full of energy and buzz and unequivocally alive. I've never been as immersed in film as I was at Sundance, surrounded by people who foster a community of cinephilia regardless of industry position. There's nothing quite like the feeling of being among an audience that is the first to ever see a film, and that sense of embracing excitement is worth stomping through a foot of snow for two weeks alone. Sundance is where I got my festival legs, where I ran the gamut of emotions and experiences, and I'm grateful to have gotten the chance to attend.

STERLIN JOHNSON

I remember a year ago, I was angry with myself and where I was as far as my career plan was going. I worked hard in class, I did whatever was asked of me, and I yet I still hadn’t made a personal victory for myself. I had told my mom that it was time that I got out of town and experience the world, but I didn’t have the resources to shell out cash for soul searching. I just knew inside that being away from everyday life and standing on my own would shake up some of my creative juices. When I found out I would be going to Sundance, my prayers felt answered. I was going to be gone for ten days in a place I’ve never been, with people I never knew, and I couldn’t help but feel in over my head. 

Once I got there, the thought never faded. When I met the other scholars, and I knew how much they had done, and how little I had done, I felt intimidated. Every line I stood in, every person I talked to, I was reminded that I hadn’t achieved anything. I felt my opportunity a fluke, and my life would forever be defined by these next few days. I knew I didn’t want that, so I did my best to rise to every occasion thrown at me. In my mind, I didn’t know if I was ever going to see anything like this ever again, and I knew the last thing I wanted to do was miss out.

I did my best to experience everything. I tried to see three films a day, write a review in between takes, and the entire time I was running on anxiety and adrenaline. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was focused on making this the most important ten days of my life. It worked too, until the last few days there. Soon, my body caught up to me, and the anxiety I had brewing had died. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, and I was counting my days until I left. I didn’t pace myself, and it made me miserable. However, it wasn’t until I was on my plane home did I realize what I had done.

I survived my first film festival. I had conversations with filmmakers, journalists, and editors. I saw films that will be talked about for the rest of the year. I’ve made life-long connections with people all across the country. I’ve written reviews for films that have actually been published and have accumulated views on the Internet. It made me realize that I hadn’t taken myself seriously yet. I didn’t know what I was capable of until I went to Sundance. Now I’m a full-blown freelancer, waiting for his next job. It’s all so surreal. Now it's just figuring out where to go from there, and how to make use of what I’ve done. Going to Sundance has opened up so many pathways, and has more than met my expectations. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that I would never trade for anything.


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