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Principles of Empathy: Ebert Fellow Whitney Spencer's First Impressions of Sundance 2019

I woke up Wednesday morning with a knot in my stomach. My flight was scheduled to leave Chicago at 9:55am and it finally felt official—I was a Roger Ebert Fellow and I was headed to Sundance. As a Sundance rookie, I had consumed more research, tips, and tricks that even I care to admit. Luckily, the opportunity to attend as an Ebert Fellow meant that the logistics and financial aspects of the trip were settled well in advance. By this point, my vacillating anticipation was only topped by my childish excitement for flying. 

Once I boarded the plane, I exchanged glances with each passenger as they gathered in the aisle hustling to their seats. I was convinced that my first “this is Sundance” moment was going to come once we hit the ground due to the commotion of Salt Lake City—but instead it came in seats 6A and 6B on the tarmac at O’Hare Airport. My seatmate and I struck up a conversation, unsurprisingly, both attending Sundance for the first time. After her gracious congratulations, I speculated about what encouraged her trip to Sundance. Her answer? Her son’s first feature film was premiering at Sundance: "Native Son." I had the pleasure of sharing space with Rashid Johnson’s mother’s beautifully warm spirit for the duration of our delayed flight—then it hit me—this was Sundance. 

Food isn’t hard to find in Park City, but it is usually the last thing on your mind! At our first dinner in Utah, each of the fellows expressed our mixed bag of excitement, nerves, wonder, and fear. Still, it was clear before day one of the festival even kicked off that the atmosphere of Sundance was warm, even on a chilly Park City evening. Every person I encountered after arriving was gracious and accommodating, quick to answer questions and offer support for the duration of the festival. A festival with, what felt like, an infinite number of moving parts easily made me feel like I was seen.  

Before arriving in Utah, I had attempted to pull together a schedule of all the films I wanted to see, panels I wanted to attend, and parties I knew I couldn’t miss. I learned pretty quickly that no schedule really matters once the festival kicks into high gear. It was fun to listen to the buzz around Park City about films across a wide array of categories. There wasn’t one category in particular that I was looking forward to as much as there were particular titles and directors that I was curious to see. I was pleased by the variety of films across categories with some big names and others that had a much more indie feel. I could tell early on that this was going to be a very well-rounded festival experience.

Still, the area that intrigued me the most was the New Frontiers program. As the industry continues to grow and change, the way that artists and filmmakers are engaging new technologies is something to marvel at. I had read a lot about the New York Times Op-Doc “Traveling While Black” virtual reality (VR) experience and felt compelled to engage on a very intentional level. The mission of the Roger Ebert Sundance Fellowship is to observe the festival through the prism of the principles of empathy, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. To that end, I felt drawn to explore the ways that the emergence of virtual reality experiences could challenge us to live out those tenets. It would be exciting to see if the VR experiences at Sundance were up to the challenge.

On Thursday, the Day One Press Conference lived up to Sundance’s collective spirit of building a public square for independent artists and filmmakers to share their undervalued but deeply necessary contributions to the world. As with much of the buzz around the festival when the full-lineup was announced, there was a heavy emphasis on highlighting diverse storytelling from diverse voices. Sundance deserves lots of credit for recognizing the role it plays in the bigger picture of Hollywood diversity and pushing forward in this direction. 

However, the lack of diversity of the programmers featured on stage was no more diverse than the typical collective of film festival programmers. This should make people question whether Sundance (and other international film festivals to boot) can overcome the (unconscious) bias in selections, which lead to inauthentic portrayals of underrepresented groups. Such a sentiment was echoed later that afternoon at the Press Inclusion Reception by Elizabeth Mendez-Berry of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, when she noted the over-saturation of Latinx representation tied to stories of the narco wars and MS-13. 

It is important that while we celebrate the diverse perspectives coming to Sundance, we don’t get distracted by an artificial multiculturalism that can often be forced upon art. If I learned anything in my first few days at Sundance, it is that there is no shortage of underrepresented folks passionate about storytelling—queer, POC, disabled or otherwise. But in order to continue to foster the conversation and understanding the festival prides itself on, there must be diverse perspectives creating the bill. 

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