How these Canadian filmmakers found hope and community in the mountains of Utah
These up-and-comers took the Slamdance Film Festival by storm — and became friends in the process
"There are so many Canadians here!"
That was a statement I heard time and time again last week in Park City, Utah, where the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals were concurrently bringing together film communities from all around the world. And it was hard to disagree. From virtual reality innovators to YouTube personalities to Indigenous activists, Canadians really were everywhere — but perhaps never in such a dramatic concentration as they were among the up-and-coming filmmakers at the Slamdance Film Festival, where an impressive quartet of Canadian feature films screened (one of which ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize).
For those unaware, Slamdance is the less famous offspring of Sundance, created in 1995 to focus on the very low budget films that Sundance was arguably becoming too popular to showcase. Both festivals happen at the same time in the same mountain town of Park City, Utah, and the social atmospheres of each festival essentially merge together. This year, four Canadian filmmakers — Daniel Warth (Dim The Fluorescents, which won Slamdance's top prize), Joyce Wong (Wexford Plaza), Adrian Murray (Withdrawn) and Jordan Canning (Suck It Up) — followed in the footsteps of the likes of Christopher Nolan, Lynn Shelton and Benh Zeitlin by having their early work screen at the fest. None of the filmmakers had met prior to the festival, but by the time I spoke to them at Telefilm Canada's annual Park City lunch, which celebrates Canadian content at both Slamdance and Sundance, they seemed like old friends.
"It's a great camaraderie that we have here in Park City with all the first-time feature Canadian films," Wexford Plaza's Wong told CBC Arts at the lunch. "It's actually comforting to just be in a group of people that are tackling the same things as you and are in the same places in their careers as you. I mean, as humans we like to build communities. I think naturally everyone gravitates towards wanting to be with other people and support other people, and that's what we have."
As humans we like to build communities. I think naturally everyone gravitates towards wanting to be with other people and support other people, and that's what we have.- Joyce Wong
Wong had just so happened to end up sitting beside Daniel Warth on the plane to Sundance, which was essentially entirely made up of Canadian film folks (this writer was on it too).
"Most of us flew in on the same plane, so we were hanging out right from the beginning," Warth said. "We all went to each other's movies; we commiserated about our scarce funding. There was a feeling — to me, anyway — that we were all kind of in it together. And, I would say that this feeling also extended to the other filmmakers from America and other parts of the world. Slamdance is generally very close-knit and supportive, which was really helpful for us because [for all of us] this was our first feature showing at our first festival."
Slamdance isn't really the most obvious choice for Warth and his new friends, given that Canada's largest city also hosts a pretty major film festival that a lot of the country's new filmmakers typically aspire toward premiering at. But like Sundance, TIFF doesn't tend to focus a lot of its attention on tiny films with even tinier budgets.
"We just didn't submit to TIFF because the scale of the movie is pretty small and it's not a traditional narrative or a traditionally shot movie," said Withdrawn director Murray (who — fun fact — realized at Slamdance that he and the star of Wong's film went to the same remote Ontarian high school). "It's only like 50 takes. So Slamdance was kind of our highest hope because the narrative features draw from a pool of blind submissions. There's no solicitation. With TIFF or the big ones, having someone in your corner helps a lot and we were not in in the industry yet. So it was fantastic that Slamdance has this program and that the film connected with them so much."
Suck It Up director Canning felt the same. "It's such a big festival, and there are such big movies happening," she said. "You do tend to get buried a little bit as an indie film. What I do love about this is that we're all stuck in the mountains together. We're all going to talk and hang out. It's been great."
While much of the of talk amongst the Canadian contingent of the festivals was about how great the experience had been, there was obviously another topic looming large over the festival. Its first full day happened to coincide with a certain inauguration, and Park City held its own Women's March the next day (led by Chelsea Handler, no less).
"The March was amazing," Canning said. "It all felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. It seems like there's an energy ball that's going to keep burning strong and get bigger."
The March was amazing. It all felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. It seems like there's an energy ball that's going to keep burning strong and get bigger.- Jordan Canning
Warth wasn't quite so optimistic. "Slamdance seems to consist of mostly left-leaning, liberal-minded people — and, from what I could tell, so does Sundance — so it was hard not to view the inauguration as the early stages of the apocalypse," he said. "Our crew made the mistake of watching the President and the First Lady dance to 'My Way'."
That said, Warth also found the crowd in Park City very outspoken — and, in particular, the Women's March "was a very exciting and inspiring response to all of the craziness."
"Regardless of where in the world we came from, it felt like a lot of us were united in our feeling that this new President is a disgrace to the country and all that it allegedly stands for," he said.
So now that all is said and done, what advice does Slamdance's class of 2017 have for folks who might want to follow in their footsteps?
"I feel like I'm a director just by default because I gravitated towards film writing, and if I wasn't the one to direct it, it just wouldn't be created," Murray said. "So my advice would just simply be to make the film. The expectations weren't big — the expectations were just to make the film we wanted to make. That was the only thing we had control over, so that was the only thing we put our efforts towards."
For Wong, it's all about voice. "The freshness of your voice, the authenticity of your voice, your experiences," she said. "That's something that you have that is very original and very special. I know that things can get confusing and you're pulled in so many different directions, but if you remember that that's the thing that makes you a good filmmaker, you won't fall onto the wrong path."
And if Wong, Murray, Canning and Warth hadn't already made it clear, the wrong path is definitely not the one that leads you to Slamdance.