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Michael McNeely previews Sundance 2021

A man smiles into the camera. A shelf full of movies on DVD are behind him.

By Michael McNeely

Another year, another Sundance Film Festival.

It is interesting how events can be part of traditions, especially successful ones, and it is also interesting how traditions can change. I intend to have Sundance be a yearly tradition, but it is yet to be determined what attendance will mean in the post-COVID-19 era. For now, I can attend Sundance from my own home, and in my jammies if I so wish.

This is both a treat and a curse, and online attendance is necessary if film festivals will continue during COVID-19.

Online attendance, of course, requires stability being online. Without a trustworthy connection, you could be paying for a film that you cannot see when it comes time to sit down and see it. However, that assumes you can afford to buy a film and afford to have at least some Internet connection which, of course, is not available to everyone.

That being said, movies are a leisure activity and enjoyment of film can indicate what social class you live in. It is important to think about financial accessibility when providing films to mass audiences, especially during periods of economic stress and global uncertainty. I am lucky that I get paid for watching films. Otherwise, I may not be able to afford seeing them, which puts me in a tricky spot. 

Many people that have helped us enjoy films in the past are laid off now with the closing of cinemas. Their jobs are often thankless, but instrumental to making us happy when we snacked on popcorn and asked if there were scenes after the credits. 

One of my happiest moments was being served pancakes in an early morning screening at Toronto International Film Festival. I am not a morning person, but a stack of pancakes made me one for the day.

One cannot forget that volunteers, many who have disabilities, help enhance the experience of attending a film festival in person. They know where to go and maybe when the best time to take a bathroom break is. They are also expected to have diversity and inclusivity training, which can be a refresher for everyone in these difficult times.

It is a great source of pride when I find someone with a disability working (or volunteering, but I do prefer they get paid if at all possible) during my beat. It means I am not alone.

The question is, where are these opportunities to volunteer and find work in the service and distribution industries now? 

I feel lonely travelling the Sundance website online, knowing that I won’t bump into someone clad in a parka (or someone else just wearing shorts and a t-shirt – Park City is weird like that – both cold and hot at the same time). 

I understand that Sundance is allowing “waiting-room” (or lobby) chats before films to alleviate some of this isolation. I will have to test it out to see if it does the trick: it may be hard to recognize users online if I don’t remember usernames. Might we be cut off mid-conversation? 

There is a virtual reality experience intended to recreate socialising with patrons this year, but it does not currently have accessibility supports in place to allow me to communicate with others. Once again, virtual reality headsets are not cheap either, so this experience is not financially accessible. For two reasons, I am unable to participate fully in this area.

There is also something to be said about having volunteers and staff surrounding you as you watch a film. Perhaps I can ask my parents to be volunteers? They could stand outside the living room while I watch a film. Or perhaps, I can convince them to watch the film with me.

I will miss Park City and Salt Lake City this year, but I am hopeful that the United States is changing for the better. It will take time for those changes to have an impact, and so maybe it is good to be home for this year.  

Listen to Michael’s Sundance Film Festival updates Friday, January 29, and Friday, February 5, on NOW with Dave Brown

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