Since 1978, thousands of filmmakers and film enthusiasts have gathered in Utah each year for the Sundance Film Festival. While this year’s festival transitioned to virtual viewing due to Covid, Sundance succeeded in continuing its legacy of promoting new works in the world of film and cultivating meaningful viewer engagement. For the second year in a row, Sundance expanded its programming to include screenings at several satellite locations, in an effort to provide greater access to audiences across the country. With a wide selection of movies — from feature films to shorts to indie episodics and more — this year’s festival had no shortage of brilliant films for attendees to enjoy.
Adding to the excitement of the festival’s return was the selection of Amherst Cinema as one of seven satellite screening locations for this year’s Sundance lineup. I sat down with the executive director of Amherst Cinema, Yasmin Eisenhauer, to get the inside scoop on the festival in Amherst.
Amherst Cinema has a long-standing relationship with Sundance: Amherst’s programming team has attended the past 10 Sundance festivals, and the cinema itself was one of 23 theaters recognized nationwide by the Sundance Institute Art House Project for achieving excellence in programming. According to Eisenhauer, the Sundance Film Festival is a place Amherst Cinema programmers go to find films “to consider for first-run titles, as well as smaller works that may not have the same kind of stars and talent attached to them, but [that they] think would be wonderful for providing a real diversity of offerings and potentially spark conversation.” Amherst Cinema’s continued relationship with Sundance resulted in an invitation to apply for the satellite screens program.
Once selected, Amherst Cinema’s satellite screen programming team — consisting of Eisenhauer, Creative Manager & Programmer Alex Hornbeck, and General Manager & Programmer George Myers — met weekly with Sundance organizers to discuss the types of films they wanted to screen and how they could effectively cultivate the Sundance experience in Amherst. Amherst’s programmers wanted to include and amplify filmmakers and works that are not typically seen in mainstream art house selections, while also considering which films in the Sundance program might have a connection to the Amherst area.
The final selection of films was deliberately curated to span multiple genres, explore pertinent topics, and promote representation, while still including “marquee films” — films with stars attached to them. Eisenhauer commented that “the mission of Amherst Cinema is very much in alignment with the mission of the Sundance Film Festival, which made the process and the work over the past couple of months really a pleasure to enter into.”
As a satellite screening location, Amherst Cinema screened eight feature films and five short films from Jan. 28-30. Programming also included a Q&A with Hope Tucker, a professor of video and film at Hampshire College, whose work “What Travelers are Saying About Jornada Del Muerto” was one of the short films screened. “We brought her in via Zoom to have a conversation about her work and previous works, as she had previously been featured at the Cinema. It was just a pleasure to speak with her and make connections with local audiences,” said Eisenhauer of the Q&A.
In an effort to expand discussion to the craft of filmmaking, Amherst Cinema programmers also brought in Shaka King, director and co-writer of the award-winning film “Judas and the Black Messiah,” for a panel discussion via Zoom. Moderated by Smith College Professor of Film and Media Studies Anaiis Cisco, “it was a beautiful session between Shaka King and Professor Cisco, who really has an experience and connection to filmmaking that made that talk really robust,” said Eisenhauer.
With the inclusion of audience participation, both Q&As were enriching experiences that enabled individuals across occupations and experience levels to engage meaningfully with one another, noted Eisenhauer. “People who came in — whether they were filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers, sound and design engineers, or simply film enthusiasts — all had a chance to engage in that conversation, which was very cool.”
As the only Sundance satellite screening location in the Northeast, Amherst Cinema attracted individuals from all across the state to attend the program in Amherst. Excitement for the festival was strong, with audience members even braving a nor’easter to attend. Eisenhauer remarked that “the nor’easter really brought forward those who had pre-planned to attend and those die-hard film enthusiasts. Every customer who crossed the threshold had a story to tell. But once they crossed the threshold, it was just this magical experience. We were all hunkered down, watching movies and eating popcorn together, having cross-group conversations. It was a wonderful experience.”
While it’s difficult to choose top films, Eisenhauer noted that “‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ was a hidden story that Amherst programmers felt should be told because of its significance as the beginning of a pan-Asian American movement.” In terms of popularity, however, the film “Alice,” starring Keke Palmer and Common, emerged as the most popular film of the screening weekend.
After a weekend of great film and fruitful conversation, Amherst Cinema wrapped up Sundance 2022 and excitedly looks forward to its forthcoming programming:
- “Late Nights”: Friday nights at 9:45 p.m., beginning March 4; “best cult, genre, and other outré film.”
- “Stage Russia” Series: March 28 at 7 p.m. (Stage Russia, Boris); April 18 at 7 p.m. (Stage Russia, The Iran Conference Date); guest-curated by Amherst College Professor of Russian Boris Wolfson; “an intercultural project that films performances presented by the finest theater companies in Russia and distributes them in HD, translated and subtitled, into cinemas, arts centers and universities across the globe … to share the beauty of Russian culture.”
- Screening of “Breathing Free”: March 9 at 4:30 p.m.; a visual album by filmmaker and researcher-in-residence at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Smith College Professor of Film and Media Studies Anaiis Cisco (co-sponsored by Amherst Cinema and the Amherst College Music Department).
- (Recurring) The Bellwether Film Series.
- (Recurring) Science on Screen.