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Blog: A filmmakers experience of the Sundance Film Festival

30th Jan 2009

PARK CITY, UTAH: The Irish short film A Film From My Parish - 6 Farms, written and directed by Tony Donoghue was selected to screen at the renowned Sundance Film Festival. The animated-photographic study of one parish in Co. Tipperary was produced as part of the Frameworks short animation film scheme which is co-financed by the IFB, RTE and the Arts Council.

The Sundance Film Festival is the largest independent cinema festival in the U.S. Held in Utah, the festival is the premier showcase for new work from American and international independent filmmakers. The festival comprises competitive sections for American and international dramatic and documentary films, both feature-length films and short films, and a group of non-competitive showcase sections.

Tony Donoghue went to Utah for the festival and wrote a blog of his experiences:

WEDNESDAY 28 - 1- 2009.

I'm back in Ireland now and assessing this trip to Sundance.

1. I didn't expect this but Sundance has given me a totally new reading of the state of documentary film today. Of course it helped that almost every major documentary filmmaker screening in Sundance was there to present their documentary in person and discuss it and its context afterwards. This also applies to the new breed such as Richard Robinson who with the new technologies crosses boundaries in and out of traditional documentary boundaries.

2. Because of meetings in Sundance I've today been invited to screen in 2 environmental festivals, one in Florida and one in Oregon, USA. I've also been asked to submit to an environmental film festival in Korea. And this was remember all for a film commissioned under an animation scheme.

3. In Utah I was also carrying some dvd's of the work of an Iranian filmmaker I met at the Environmental Film Festival in Paris (in December) and I'm thrilled to say the Florida festival will now be inviting her to screen too. Hurray for the international filmmaker brotherhood that transcends national and political boundaries -Iran, Ireland and USA -hey !! .

Tips for filmmakers going to Sundance

It is really beautiful in Utah, but if you're going over pack rubber soles boots as the ice can be really treacherous. Don't wear leather soles (as I did the first day) or you will just fall over.

As for the Sundance poster boards, the big companies employ professional poster pasters to post their posters every 3 hours...so don't print your posters on expensive paper as they will be seen for a maximum of 1-2 hours before being covered.

A good tip is to plead with some shops to display your poster in their window -- and for this it is a good idea to bring some A4 or A3 posters printed on nice paper. I managed this in two shops where I put the red tractor poster and then put the larger A2 diagonal tractor posters up on the external notice boards.

First thanks goes to Alistair Keady of Hexhibit who despite suffering from a horrible flu came up with three lovely poster designs in under two days --thanks Alistair for such a great job --your posters were much admired ....much appreciated .

Secondly --thanks to Garry Palmer and Marcus Hauer of The Sundance Institute who guided us through all the madness, options and paperwork of the festival.

A big thanks to Louise Ryan who made sure the film print got printed and over and into the Sundance office in Utah bang on time.

Another big thanks to all the folk in Culture Ireland who facilitated all the last minute organization that made the trip possible.

A really big thanks to Martin Poultney of Ascent 142 who was so worried about the film print being ready and in Utah on time that he even gave me his mobile phone number to phone him on Christmas Day if necessary.

Thanks to Suzanne Murray for creating the space for a filmmaker to rant and rave on the Irish Film Board website - that must be a first!

And finally thanks to the much maligned and much misunderstood farmers of Ireland who happily animated this film along with me!!!


FRIDAY 23-1-2009

It's my last big day here and there's so much to do and see yet.

Kicking off the day was the A FILM FROM MY PARISH - 6 FARMS screening and discussion in a theatre beside the Eccles Screening centre .This was always going to be a nerve wracking experience as secondary school students are always notoriously uninterested in anything.  It was ok though, I was in fact quite surprised by the number and variety of questions .The whole thing was filmed and broadcast live by Shane Snipes on the eco aware website ONEGREENER (check them out http://www.onegreener.com/ )

This was a good move by the Sundance press office for everyone as the students were quite fascinated by the fact I shot my film on two digital stills cameras ...and Shane was transmitting the whole session live to the web using his mobile phone and his laptop.  The students definitely liked the idea that they could realize both possibilities, Shane's way of working and mine.  I think that's probably why we were chosen for this morning session.

Ok, overall assessment of the Sundance Film Festival.

You'll certainly know if you've been here, it's incredibly hard work.. the travelling around, the long bus journeys, the traffic, the 8.30 am screenings, the parties, the filmmakers, the TV companies ...but like achieving anything worthwhile there is an incredible glow of achievement if you get to the end of the week.

Sundance Versus Telluride.
This is tough.  I wasn't the only one arriving here expecting another Telluride Film Festival. Both are festivals held at the top of a mountain in a ski resort ...but there the similarity ends.

Telluride is small and charming.  There you can walk to everything and the selection of films is very discerning.  Sundance is also on top of a mountain but only one of the 8 main cinemas is to be found on or near the main street.  Here the selection of films is also discerning ...but the curation of over 120 feature films (all playing for a minimum of 4 times and always in different cinemas), art exhibitions, workshops, discussion panels, award ceremonies and of course short film programmes makes this one of the finest film achievements on the planet.

The Filmmaker Experience.

This has to be divided into 2 catagories: enjoyment and work.  There is no doubt that for anyone over 30 Telluride takes some beating.  The beautiful landscape, the ever attentive staff, all very pleasant.  At Telluride accommodation and all meals are provided for the filmmaker regardless of the length of film.

Sundance is different - a short filmmaker gets an allowance of $500 but with hotel rooms starting at $200 per night (if you're early and lucky) right up to $500 per night then Telluride wins hands down on the accommodation front.  It is true that the film office do help the filmmakers find rooms -- my first 5 nights cost $160 a room but after that I was on my own.  The town restaurants are also horribly expensive so unless you can survive on festival party finger food then you're going to spend money here.

For the under 30's or the young at heart, the endless flow of free beer and cocktails in Sundance receptions takes some beating.  Telluride is quieter and very classy.  I got chatty with one wine merchant at Telluride and there a certain party didn't have a single bottle of wine at less than $150 a bottle ....not that I could tell the difference mind you.


Telluride is mostly populated by wealthy patrons and other filmmakers.  It's a good place to see films, talk about films, eat well, make lifelong film friends ...but for work ...I'm not sure.  Sundance on the other hand is more like the boat show - it's crowded, it's work and everyone is there.  How much of this comes to anything has yet to be seen but I met so many academics and journalists that I'd be surprised if something doesn't come of my slightly weird way of making films.  Also, there a lot more of the hungry filmmaker types here in Sundance so again I hope some of my arranged and chance meetings turn into something more like real paid work. 

I have a bite from an LA TV company, an advertising agency who are looking for something fresh, a possible Canadian co-production and some possible lecturing... and the Wyoming state film commission?  This was with hindsight always a lot less likely to happen from my Telluride experience.

This, of course is only my experience and maybe many other filmmakers had the reverse experience.  In Sundance stars are seen, have a cortege and are largely untouchable. Those at Sundance this year included Sting, David Bowie and Uma Thurman.  At Telluride without knowing who they were I spoke with Tracey Chapman (she's grown her hair out) and Danny Boyle, it's that relaxed.  Salman Rushdie and Jeff Goldblum were at the same house party in Telluride as Tracey Chapman and nobody batted an eyelid or made a fuss over them - such is Telluride.  I'd like to have met Uma Thurman ... but that wasn't going to happen at Sundance.

Both are fantastic festivals.  If you get the chance to go to either then jump at it --I had a very lucky year this year and people over here of all professions and inclinations really liked my Tipperary farmer film which was the best part of all.

THURSDAY 22-1-2009

First of all a big congrats from here in Sundance to Stef Green for her Oscar nominated short NEW BOY.  All the crew here who met her in Telluride send a big hello and congratulations.  Way to go girl!

Following on from the fantastic documentary shorts programme I went to see the animated shorts programme that totally surprised me... the programming here was really intelligent and the films largely quirky.   Here are a few of the highlights:

First up was yesterdy's Oscar nominated THIS WAY UP by Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith.  Since leaving Farnham and the RCA Adam has mostly worked on commercials and videos so a foray into filmmaking is unusual for him.  It's CGI but it's traditional storytelling.  It's no wonder that it has been picking up awards all round the world as the timing and lighting are incredible.  It has one of the best marching /procession scenes since the early days of Fleischer or the very early Disney Silly Symphonies. This is a classic scene and will go down as one of the greats.

There were also two films from France both of which were whimsical and tight at the same time.  SKHIZEIN by Jeremy Clapin and MISTER COK by Franck Dion were both beautifully designed --of course they were -they're French for God's sake!

SCHIZEIN has as wonderful concept and everything was spot on while MISTER COK for me was a little indulgent with the story suffering due to an over emphasis on repeating a "big brother'' message.

Hottest kid on the block Don Hertzfeldt brought the house down with his crazy I AM SO PROUD OF YOU.  This guy is both totally contemporary and archaic.  He works directly under a rostrum camera (no line tests, no video assists, no correcting) yet his themes and little stick men are totally of the moment.  Magical broken narratives and quirks predominate.

Hertzfeldt was the big hit of the night but for me to see a PEZ film up there in 35 mm was magical.  They're good on You Tube but a good clean film print was a treat.  Here the print of their WESTERN SPAGHETTI was are pure magic ..with the influence of Svankmajer ....but none of the politics.

WEDNESDAY 21 -1-2009

Ok- here is that eternal festival question: do I plot out my timetable, even if it means getting up at 6.30 am and sticking religiously to my film viewing timetable? ...OR  ...do I go to the parties?  We've all had that dilemma ...right? But where is the merry balance?

Yesterday, I didn't go to see the only other two Irish films in Sundance this year, Connor Clement's JAMES and Oliver Hirschbiegel's FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN and I feel really guilty.  I know I'll see FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN in the IFI soon enough and Connor will give me a copy of his film too but should I have gone to both and foregone the parties????  Sounds like slacking -huh? Well, this is Sundance and Sundance IS most definitely different. 

At yesterday's parties alone I was asked to talk at two American universities (about the limits of documentary, I was interviewed for Sundance TV, interviews were arranged for two online media sites/magazines, and I met the amazing Richard Knox Robinson.  Richard's film THE BEEKEEPER is in the New Frontiers programme and he is showing between Sandra Lee Gibson's UNTITLED and the God that is Pat O Neill's HORIZONTAL BOUNDARIES.  Even Richard is amazed by his exalted company but the point is this photographer has made a film that transcends the boundaries between high experimental filmmaking and documentary and social responsibility .Well done Richard and long may Sundance promote this type of new filmmaking exploration.

This brings me nicely on to yesterday's films -the DOCUMENTARY SHORTS programme.  It might seem strange that Sundance with 200 feature films and 86 shorts only has one exclusively shorts programme for documentary films. The others like mine play with features here.

The programme -- what a programme!  Richard Shepard's I KNEW IT WAS YOU must be one of the most charming and well made short documentary films ever.  It is so well researched and such an act of love and respect for the deceased actor John Cazale.  John only made five films!!! ...and although never nominated for an Oscar is one of the great actor's actor.  His performances in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE GODFATHER and THE DEERHUNTER were intelligently examined by Richard in a lovingly and respectful way. The interview with John's former partner Meryl Streep alone took a year to secure.  I like this type of filmmaker.

I won't analyse all 8 films in this DOCUMENTARY SHORTS programme but the fact that 3 out of 8 were animated for me puts to bed an argument I continuously had out at Dun Laoghaire College Of Art - can documentary be animation...or can animation be documentary?  For me animation is single frame filmmaking no matter what the subject or style and the handling of the subject and its integrity should determine its genre ...not the frame rate it was shot at.  NOW -- with the Sundance experience behind me I firmly declare A FILM FROM MY PARISH -6 FARMS is a documentary which happened to be animated as a means of production .

Cam Christiansen's THE REAL PLACE was a really interesting documentary about John Murrell.. oh, and it was animated!!!

That's definitely enough for one day.  So parties are good (taken in moderation), animation can be documentary...and at 6.03am I'm now going back to bed so I can be all sweetness and light for another 6 FARMS screening at 11.30am.

WEDNESDAY 21-1-2009

Today I was meant to see Emily Kunstler's portrait of her dad WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE so I could compare it with yesterdays film also about a father lawyer by his filmmaker daughter.

HOWEVER - the weather was gorgeous today and I just had to go out instead and photo these crazy walls of film posters that grow and grow and groan with the weight of each days posters. The poster for A FILM FROM MY PARISH -6 FARMS holds up well both in style and design.

Everyone is so friendly on the street here.  As I photographed the posters I got so many business cards from interested magazine editors and also compliments about 6 FARMS, it was almost embarrassing... but lovely all the same.
Wandering the main drag of Park City (Main Street) I also found another side of Sundance (its equivalent of off Broadway) and it's called SLAMDANCE.  Everyone else probably knows all about this parallel festival but the catalogue and the film clips on their foyer screen looked really excellent. Check out their LA based website http://www.slamdance.com/ for some great horror, drama and documentaries.  This is one to check out for sure.

Let's see if I can see some films now.

TUESDAY 20 -1 -2009

This is probably the biggest day in American history in a very long time so today I'm going to see some films about the state of the nation past and present.

WE LIVE IN PUBLIC by Ondi Timoner looks at the weird world of the self proclaimed artist and dot com entrepreneur Josh Harris.  A really well made documentary about a totally obnoxious man basically. However, the footage of 100 people living in racked beds-in a sealed in building with each space having its own camera and tv so they can watch each other's every move really makes the whole thing worth seeing.

It's actually terrifying stuff, real proto Stalin.... and why people would subjugate themselves to the control of this nut I don't know ...actually, yes I do: it's New York and its billed as a live in art project.  It was busted by the NYPD on January 1st 2000...and closed down as a dangerous cult.

A much more chilling film about the state of the nation was SHOUTING FIRE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH.  This film explores (using recent cases) the boundaries of the first amendment and how it can and has been be used in the name of national security. This was the world premiere and the director's father (a famous first amendment lawyer) was in the audience and also in the film. A truly marvelous documentary about the erosion of civil rights.

Tomorrow:  Two more documentary programmes and the Irish feature FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN. That one plays at midnight which is weird as that slot is normally for the thrash horror films and people show up drunk and noisy.  Could be interesting ...and very animated.

MONDAY 19-1-2009.

8.30 am and a full house again (446) for OLD PARTNER and A FILM FROM MY PARISH. Absolutely everything here sells out ...even for 8.30 am screenings!!!!

The 35 mm print looked astonishing and the Q&A went really well too. Lots of academics at these documentary programmes -- yes, here 6 FARMS is considered a documentary -- at last.  We had to be thrown out of the auditorium by the cinema staff in the end but I think I've just recruited a band of farm surveyors.

As well as the four scheduled screenings, 6 FARMS will now be screened six times in all -- once for the industry (and we the filmmakers are not allowed to attend this --how weird is that!) and also once for a workshop with a school.  The school chose 6 FARMS as this years film for discussion -- how flattering.

This place is nuts though... both the State of Montana and the State of Idaho Film Commissions want me to shoot a farm or mask film there -- no problem guys..  as long as you help find the funding.

Talking of funding, this place is full of producers from LA and New York whose first question - without even being introduced - is "Are you planning a feature?" --- what's wrong with planning a series of short films / a series  ?.... this they don't understand ...so I guess for the rest of this week I'm planning a feature too.

It's now 1.20 am here ..time to rest before it all starts again in 6 hours.

SUNDAY 18-1-2009

I'm actually very lucky --the feature director I've been partnered up with hasn't shown up yet so the questions and answers afterwards are therefore only about A FILM FROM MY PARISH.  What a megalomaniac!...ah no ...not really ....as it's good for the film ...as otherwise the shorts film makers have to meet their interested parties out in the foyer.  How duff is that?

Rumour this year is that a number of shorts are better than the feature they accompany. That's from the public --not my opinion at all!!!

Today's screening went really well. There is an astonishing amount of film media students attending this festival.

Finally went to some of the laid on parties ...pretty good ..but everybody is anticipating the release of the second round of tickets tomorrow. I so want to see the Norwegian nazi zombie thriller "Dead Snow ".  I hear it's awesome ..as is the short "Treevenge" which accompanies it.  I've heard "Treevenge" is the best film in the festival...  well maybe.

SATURDAY 17-1 -2009

This is tough here --not falling over on the icy pavements -- but even more so that almost everything is sold out until the second release of tickets on Monday.  Seemingly this is when all the glitzy folks go home and the filmmakers finally get to see the films.  Paris Hilton was arrested today ...but seemingly she did it for the attention!

Oh yeah, all the filmmakers were taken up to Robert Redford's place in the mountains and he told us how grand we all were.  Connor Clements got a bit lost and asked Pierce Brosnan for directions.. he didn't know them .

FRIDAY 16-1-2009

First scheduled screening of A FILM FROM MY PARISH -6 FARMS was not in the festival venue but down the hill in Salt Lake City.

It went well but the first time they tried to show 6 FARMS it was put on upside down and backwards.  Not a great start ....but it gained great sympathy and instead of before the feature it had then to be screened after it .Great response from Salt Lake City for my Tipperary farmers --thank you Salt Lake!

THURSDAY 15-1-2009

Tips for filmmakers and anyone attending Sundance Film Festival.

  1. Be warned - Don't go too cheap when buying your ticket here.  My planned 17 hour trip turned into a 37 hour trip and they also lost my bag for 2 days.
  2. If booking accommodation be really careful -lots of people booked lodges online and these can be between 2 and 8 miles from the cinemas. That means up to $25 each way to get in to the festival.
  3. If you're screening here then harass the festival to get you into one of their subsidised hotels for your whole stay --it'll cost you $160 a night and you will probably get only allocated only 4-5 nights at this rate but at least it will ensure you're not too far from town and not paying $300-$400.
  4. Rapidly get over the shock of how much your accommodation costs and how far you will have to travel between screenings...sometimes 2 buses.
  5. Once over that shock you will experience some of the best film programming on the planet --truly amazing --over 200 feature films and 96 shorts (each playing 4-5 times). 

Disclaimer:  The opinions expressed here represent Tony Donoghue and not those of Bord Scannán na hÉireann/ the Irish Film Board (IFB).  The IFB are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, opinions expressed, privacy policies or for any damages or losses, directly or indirectly, caused or alleged to have been caused as a result of use or reliance on such information.


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