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Bringing Chicago to Park City: Ebert Fellow Niani Scott's First Impressions of Sundance

As a Roger Ebert Fellow and first-timer at Sundance Film Festival, I have already felt a wide range of emotions, and it is only the beginning of the festival. I find myself going from awestruck at the magnitude of the event, to feeling humbled, excited, and empowered by the opportunity. I came here knowing this experience was bound to be golden, largely because I was going to be accompanied by two other incredible black women, determined to shift the narrative on black people from across the city of Chicago. Whitney Spencer is a master’s student at DePaul University, an aspiring filmmaker and a vibrant spirit. Tiffany Walden is the editor-in-chief of The Triibe, a digital media platform for black voices, and is warm and down to earth. It’s only day two, and I already consider Whitney and Tiffany sisters.

The mission of the Ebert Fellowship is to observe the festival through the lens of empathy, kindness, compassion and forgiveness and see if the festival is reflecting those values. Empathy has been mentioned at several panels and films such as, “Clemency,” have been prefaced with the purpose of evoking empathy. I think that the films are doing the work. I am seeing things differently and with greater compassion, evoking strong emotions within me. As I watched “Native Son,” I had physical reactions throughout the film, and I saw other audience members re-position themselves during pivotal moments in the film. I believe this is an indication that people felt a personal connection to the characters and events. Empathy and compassion lead to kindness and forgiveness; if you can see and acknowledge the fullness of another person’s humanity, and feel connected to their lived experiences, you will strive to be kind and forgiving. Great films and diverse representation help us to see one another. Sundance seems to be taking some needed first steps.

Sundance always starts with founder and actor, Robert Redford, announcing that the festival has begun at the opening press conference. The festival has been running for 34 years and this year, Redford seems to be passing the torch to his team. He left the press conference early, after expressing a desire to enjoy the festival as a spectator.

So far, my days have been filled with films, panel discussions and parties. I am not normally a breakfast eater, but I have found that it has been the only thing to keep me sustained throughout the long days here. Amazingly, Utah has such good tap water, which is great because staying hydrated is another key to enduring the intense schedule.

Park City is beautiful and picturesque, and although it is snow-filled, its lack of humidity and wind make a 29-degree day feel like springtime in Chicago. The houses are quaint, have a movie-like appeal and are surrounded by snow covered mountains. The evergreen trees that fill the city also add life to this winter wonderland. I did not realize that Park City would feel like Disney World. I have heard the saying, “Sundance is summer camp for people in the film industry,” time and time again, but I couldn’t have imagined just how much it would feel like it.

I have been in networking environments since I was twelve years old, but they can still be intimidating and a bit awkward. During my time at Sundance, I have been actively trying to push through the weirdness and talk to as many people as I can. I am naturally social and an extrovert, but in this new place, everything is fast-paced and there are so many new people to meet. Typically, interactions are short and happen in passing from one event to the next. As a person and as a journalist, I tend to look for opportunities for substantive engagement and to build rapport, so I am still finding my groove here.

“Native Son” premiered on the opening night of Sundance. The film was nothing short of stellar and I cannot wait for the world to see it. Although I missed the press line (aka the red carpet) before the premiere, Lena Waithe, Sanaa Lathan and the films’ writer, Suzan-Lori Parks, were just as accessible as any other movie-goer throughout the evening. I was able to speak with both Sanaa and Suzan-Lori and tell them how great it was to see their Black girl magic shine, and hear their thoughts on stage during the post-film Q&A session.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the countless Sundance attendees, there are also random folks walking around with skis and snowboards, fresh off the slopes. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to hit the slopes before I leave Park City. It would be an added bonus to what I hope is the first of many years for me here at Sundance. 

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

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