by Jeanette Bonner
Sundance Film Festival. It’s the dream of many filmmakers, directors and actors to utter the very words: “We got in to Sundance.” Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing in Park City, Utah. Celebrities pass you on the street! Invites to parties with unlimited alcohol abound! Chelsea Handler casually asks if you want to go snowboarding on Tuesday! (A girl can dream.) All this, taking place over the course of a week in one of the most beautiful places in America, simply because of the passion and fierce dedication found within the independent filmmaking community.
Attracting celebrities, filmmakers, producers, financiers and distributors from around the globe, Sundance is considered to be the second biggest market in the commercial film game. With nearly 50,000 attendees yearly, it is the largest independent film festival in the United States. The festival comprises competitive sections for American and international dramatic and documentary films, both feature films and short films, and a group of out-of-competition sections, including NEXT, New Frontier, Spotlight, Midnight, Premieres and Documentary Premieres. And for the first time ever, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival opened up a new submission category for Short Form Episodics.
Or, as well like to call them, web series.
“Throughout the history of the Sundance Film Festival, our goal has been to evolve our program based on wherever we find independent storytellers making exceptional work. The current episodic landscape is incredibly exciting to us as curators,” explains Charlie Reff, Senior Programmer at Sundance Film Festival. “We’re interested to see how independent creators will make their mark in this landscape, and we want to be there to showcase and support original artists.”
This year’s Sundance took place in Park City, Utah from January 19-29. The official selections in the Short Form Episodic Showcase screened on Monday, January 23rd at the Egyptian Theater. Out of over 500 submissions, three series were chosen to be featured: Gente-fied, about a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles on the verge of cultural change, The Chances, an ASL series about two best friends who are deaf trying to navigate their romantic lives, and Strangers, centered around a woman who is newly single, newly bisexual, and inviting strangers into her life every episode via an Air B-n-B-style arrangement.
All three series are exceptionally engaging, smartly written, expertly shot and acted, and incredibly compelling. To use an industry term – they are TV ready. I enjoyed each for vastly different reasons, but I can’t overlook the fact that each of these series stood out because their unique voice and perspective represents diverse communities often found missing in mainstream entertainment.
Gente-fied is currently shopping around for a digital home and not available to watch online.
Gente-fied doesn’t focus on one main character, but has seven different people of the community try to process gentrification as it affects them personally. Chris (Edsson Morales) is a taco shop-owning millennial, Ana (Alicia Sixtos) is a pro-LGBT muralist, and Pancho (Rafael Sigler) is a bar owner struggling with paying rent. By highlighting the complications of gentrification from various angles it engages its audience – both Latino and not – in a way that never feels they are being preached to. In a talkback after the screening, Marvin Lemus, the creator, co-writer and director of Gente-fied, said that he created the series because he was interested in making an anthology that “explored different Latino characters and brown faces without stereotypes.” He also wanted to explore the struggle of identity conflict through a community of characters because “The people – gente – should be keeping the community alive.” The diversity of their stories within the complex nature of what it means to be a non-white person living in America today is a voice that is sorely needed in today’s entertainment.
The Chances is looking for a TV development deal and is not currently available to watch online.
Along those same lines, I was blown away by The Chances, a show that depicts what it means to be deaf and signing while managing to have the series not be about either one. Kate (Shoshannah Stern) and Michael (Joshua Feldman) are two 30-something best friends who communicate on an other-world level as only best friends can do. Except that it happens to be with their hands. Director Anna Kerrigan stunned me with her ability to express the story – largely about Kate’s marriage to a non-deaf man and Michael’s drama with his ex-boyfriend – on two (if not three) levels simultaneously. “It was challenging for me as a director, because I’m used to cutting away to reaction shots. In comedy, it’s all about the reaction. It’s also all about the timing, so I was worried how to perfect that because often you are reading the line” – which is superimposed on screen next to the actors’ faces – “and not hearing it said out loud.” But the true genius of the series is how quickly we not only adapt to this interesting mix of reading and hearing and watching, but are transported into their world. If the show can present the intricacies of navigating relationships using sign language as just another every day hang up in the world of dating, then The Chances has succeeded. Simultaneously, it has begun a conversation about how content creators can be better in bringing the two forms of communication together in modern day entertainment.
Strangers will be available via Refinery29 in Spring 2017.
Third to screen, Strangers (executive produced by Refinery29 and Beachside Productions) separates itself from the pack by having at its core a non-white, sexuality-questioning, charming female named Isobel (Zoe Chao) and her adorably peppy, lesbian, androgynous best friend Cam (Meredith Hagner) – who totally isn’t afraid to poke around Isobel’s vagina with a flashlight to check for herpes. Now that’s what you call friendship! Living on your own and needing strangers to help pay your rent may not sound ideal, but if comes with a friendship like that, I’m in! I fell in love with these two free-spirited women so quickly that I wanted to show up with my duffel bag bursting. Mia Lidofsky, one of the two directors of Strangers, a lesbian herself, said in the talkback that she wanted to show positive female friendships that were not catty or cutting. Additionally the Air B-n-B-style set up allowed different stories to be brought in on an episode-by-episode basis. “Shared communities change our universe,” says Lidofsky. “We all want to see likeness on screen; we want shows to reflect our current world. Diversity creates empathy. And in a post-Trump world, that is extremely necessary.”
America Ferrara, who is both Executive Director and actor in Gente-fied, commended Sundance on this very initiative. Representing the show at the talkback, she explained, “Sundance represents voices that aren’t represented in the mainstream, which is one of the reasons it continues to be such a valuable resource.” This rang out to a large round of applause by the audience and the creators alike on stage. But Program Director Charlie Reff was more humble. “Whatever excites us, we’ll showcase. We’re not limited to how that story presents itself.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. So get cracking, creators! Sundance is on your horizon.