My Sundance Film Festival 2011 Journey.

And so it ends… the Grand Jury Prize winners Like Crazy (Dramatic) and How to Die in Oregon (Doc) announced just minutes ago at the Awards Ceremony… the crowd disperses across Park City to party the night away as the Sundance Film Festival 2011 draws to a close.

And what an incredible journey it’s been. With a million thanks to Maria Finitzo, Dorothy Marks and the folks at Kartemquin Films, I had the opportunity to be there as part of the 45-strong entourage that journeyed from Chicago to Park City in support of The Interrupters world premiere.

My first big film festival. *ahh!!*

Sundance Credentials
Holding up my Sundance credentials


As the plane touched down in Salt Lake City, I was instantly struck by the gorgeous snow-capped mountains all around – a stark difference from the flat Illinois I’m used to. Now I’d heard stories about how crazy things can get for first-time festival-goers (no surprise that everyone wants to be a part of the most prestigious film festival in the country), but nothing prepared me for the sheer madness we were hit with. The bus, ticketing, getting into theaters and parties all had complex systems that came with big learning curves. Thank goodness I had Maria and Dorothy to brave it all with me. No wonder people have written Sundance Survival Guides.

The Interrupters Eddie, Coby and Ameena pose with crew Zak, Alex and Aaron just before the world premiere

My first film of the festival? Kartemquin’s very own The Interrupters. While it was scheduled to premiere at 9pm at the beautiful Temple Theatre, we arrived by 7.30pm to party it up in the green room… specially reserved for the cast, crew, friends and family. Everyone had a ton of fun getting their glamour shots taken with the Sundance backdrop set up there. When it came time to roll, the theatre was packed. Director Steve James introduced the film and then, it was the moment of truth… the world premiere! I must’ve cried at least 5 times throughout the film… incredibly powerful stories of violence in neighborhoods of Chicago told through the eyes of 3 remarkable interrupters who’ve risked and dedicated their lives to stopping the killing. But don’t just take it from me. Read responses from Cinematical, Square,, Chicago Tribune, Roger Ebert and the many folks who saw the movie. The Kartemquin party that followed the night after at our condo was definitely a celebration to remember and a great opportunity for me to get to know the interrupters themselves over drinks.


Our schedules for the days that followed after were jam-packed with as many films as we could get tickets for. Tickets were SO DIFFICULT to come by though… so there came times where we had to launch plan B: Show up at the venue 2 hours before the screening time to get on the wait list and hope/pray that we make it in. A real gamble… but somewhat fun too because you get to strike up some interesting conversations with people standing in line around you… like Michael aka Mr. Moustache, a cowboy hat-donning veteran Sundance volunteer (one of 1650!) who’s there to answer questions about the festival, but instead, receives questions about his long, intricately curled moustache the most!

It’s amazing how many fellow Chicagoans we met there. It was also pretty cool that most of the folks I’d made conversation with had either seen The Interrupters or had heard about it and were very excited about it. Good buzz!

There was also a good deal of kindness and generosity going around… One morning, as I was standing in line at 8am waiting to enter a theatre, the gentleman next to me turned to me.

“hey, would you like a ticket to see Happy, Happy?”
“erm… no thanks.” I replied.
“for free?” Now my interest was piqued.
“oh! well it depends on what time and which theatre…” I already had 3 films scheduled for the day.
“3pm at the Egyptian,” he said, “we’re not gonna be able to make it.”
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  I agreed and thanked them for their kindness, silently wondering why they’d bought the ticket in the first place… and then a look at the ticket revealed the answer… printed at the bottom were the words “Sponsor Comp”. Ah. I wonder which of the major name sponsors they were working for!

Happy, Happy, a Norwegian film, later went on to win the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Filmmaking… so thanks guys! :)

All in all, Sundance 2011 was a wonderfully memorable experience. Got to see lotsa great films, meet lotsa great people, hang out with the wonderful folks from Kartemquin and eat lotsa great food. Thank you Maria, for your guidance, generosity and giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

Here’s a list of the films I got to see there in chronological order:

  1. The Interrupters – Awesome doc. Go see it!
  2. Abraxas – Japanese Narrative about a punk rock musician turned buddhist monk
  3. Higher Ground – Directed by Up In The Air star Vera Farmiga. Excellent Soundtrack. Ok story.
  4. Happy Happy – Norwegian film about 2 couples cheating with one another. Light-hearted and funny. Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Filmmaking
  5. Lost Kisses – Italian film about a 13-year old being idolized by the townsfolk who believe she has the ability to talk to God. I saw no connection to the film’s title. They gave out free lipbalm though!
  6. Shorts Program II – Best ones I saw were Brick Novax and Sexting.
  7. Position Among the Stars – Highly recommended doc set in Jakarta. Gripping story about 3 generations in a poor family striving for a better life. Winner of the World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Doc
  8. Doc Showcase II – The Barber of Birmingham was excellent. RIP director Gail Dolgin. Living for 32 had a great story, following the survivor of the Virginia Tech shootings… wish they’d executed it better though. Animals Distract Me was.. okay. A famous celeb self-indulging imo.
  9. Family Portrait in Black and White – Sad doc about black children in Ukraine orphaned because of racism and a foster mother who’s taken 17 of them in.
  10. The Bengali Detective – Interesting doc about the lives of 4 people in Calcutta as seen through the eyes of a slightly overweight detective with a heart of gold.

An evening with Kartemquin Films

hoop-dreams-15-cardTonight, with the wonderful company of Karl and Mario, I attended the 15th anniversary celebration of the iconic documentary – Hoop Dreams.

The crowd was a great mix of people – some who’ve been long-time supporters of Kartemquin Films since it was founded over 40 years ago, and some new friends coming out to support one of our national treasures. All that, coupled with the opportunity to mix and mingle with Kartemquin filmmakers in the beautiful Gene Siskel Film Center in the heart of Chicago, made the night one to remember.

I’ve personally been a great admirer of KTQ Films for a couple of years. JJ Hanley spoke to us about the documentary she produced, Refrigerator Mothers, in my ‘Community Integration of Labeled People’ class about a year ago. I was tremendously moved by the message it was trying to put across and decided to look up Kartemquin on the internet (thanks to the hint i got when she wore the KTQ t-shirt that day). To my excitement, i discovered that my TA for the RTVF 280 class i took the year before, Maria Finitzo, was also a Kartemquin Filmmaker. I remember how much I loved the clip of Terra Incognita she screened in class! And that beautiful moment of realization sparked a purchase of several KTQ DVDs. Hoop Dreams included.

Having followed the incredible journey of the two 14-year old boys featured in Hoop Dreams, it was so surreal watching them return as almost 40-year olds to speak at the event. KTQ1I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of documentary though. The stories are so real and engaging that it makes you care about the futures of the characters featured. I loved learning about where William Gates and Arthur Agee are today and how being in the movie had affected their lives. It’s great that William, who’s now a pastor at Living Faith Church in Cabrini Green, and Arthur, who’s teaching youths about following their dreams through the ‘Hoop Dreams’ Curriculum, are out there being positive role models for people. When we had the opportunity to chat with Arthur after the event, it was really nice to see some of that boyish charm we’ve all seen in the movie, still in him. :)

After the keynote address by Peabody Award-winning author Alex Kotlowitz, we got to hear from Joanna Rudnick and the impact that In The Family has made. Now this showed us another one of the great beauties of documentary – exposing what’s unjust and pushing for change! The short clip she showed taught us about how some private company has patented a gene, and hence denied its access to women with a life-threatening genetic mutation, unless they’re able to fork out $3000 for it. That ruffled many feathers in the room instantly. As Joanna put it, how can you patent something we all grow? It’s like patenting the human thumb!

The night drew to a close as KTQ Films Founder, Gordon Quinn, made his way to the rostrum with a rousing standing ovation from the crowd, and introduced the board chairman, Steve Whisnant to give his closing remarks.

There was no better way to end the celebration, than by getting us all looking forward to Kartemquin’s next films! Watching snippets from The Interrupters and Invisible Seasons kept us glued to our seats and left us wanting more.

Oh boy. Over 40 years and counting. Kartemquin Films is truly a gem and will continue to be my source of inspiration for a long time. They’re doing exactly what i want to do in life – using the art of storytelling to bring together communities and to foster positive social change. I love it!

Thank you, Viva Doc of Columbia College Chicago for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this.