By Lynn Venhaus

At the 27th Annual Sundance Film Festival, my two sons, Tim and Charlie, and I, were accepted as ushers for the fest. We had never been. They stayed for the duration, I was only there for a week. Tim called it the greatest time of his life — he saw 23 movies in 11 days, worked those screenings around his volunteer shifts. We look back on that time fondly. We were asked back – that doesn’t always happen, so we were grateful. But Charlie had moved to New York City two weeks after Sundance and began a career in advertising, and Tim returned to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree in cinema production. We’ve kept up with friends we made there, and are grateful we had that experience. I told Tim that I wanted to go back when he had a film accepted there — and that was a fun goal, but that dream died when he did, in 2018. I can go back as a film journalist. Just don’t know if I will. Here are my thoughts from that time — I wrote a blog for the Belleville News-Democrat website on that time, brought my laptop to the volunteer lounge to put my thoughts together every day. This is the first one. I hope I can find the others, but this is a good start that encapsulates the first few days.


Opening Night, Jan. 20, 2011

Italian director and fellow Sundance rookie Roberta Torre sat next to me on the shuttle as we looped around snow-covered but well-manicured Park City, Utah, late Thursday night. Her first submission for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, “Lost Kisses,” would screen Friday.

Her previous work – a musical on the Mafia – had been at Venice and Cannes, but as Sundance is synonymous with risk-taking and exciting emerging filmmakers, this satire focusing on a 13-year-old girl’s vision and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of 115 features that will be screened during the 10-day festival. (Update: Her film was a Grand Jury Prize nominee).

Every January, this old silver mining town in the shadow of the Rockies becomes a mecca for movie lovers from around the globe and the epicenter of the entertainment business. Lives change overnight – filmmakers fortunate to strike a chord with a Hollywood mogul in the audience can depart with a multi-million deal. Ever hear of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Reservoir Dogs”? Household names and unknowns with a dream vie to be the toast of the town.

But the ideals on which the festival began hold true today. Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, summed it up this way in our program:

I’ve always believed that our best chance to understand the world around us comes in the form of stories and, in particular, stories that represent a unique perspective and are told with an authentic voice. So my first and continued hope for the Sundance Film Festival is the same: to provide a vital platform for these kinds of stories and a community for these kinds of artists. And because a film is not complete until it finds its audience, the film lovers who join our community each January are key to making this platform vital.”

Then he told us to be careful crossing the streets.

The local newspaper referred to the fest as “controlled chaos” and residents say it’s their shot to ski without any lines at the three nearby resorts.

Charlie, Tim and Lynn Venhaus

But it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. This year, my two sons and I are working as ushers.

We’re among the 1,670 volunteers who help make this the premier fest in the U.S. celebrating independent cinema. Upon our arrive from Salt Lake City, we were handed hats, scarves, gloves, water bottles, transit maps, grub stubs (free food at designated restaurants), movie ticket vouchers, credentials, and thick film guides.

Since our selection the first week of December, we’ve been training online, and now have the hands-on details.

Everyone has been so incredibly helpful and friendly, from helping us navigate the free bus routes to advice on drinking lots of water. And those who are in charge are supremely organized.  It’s a marvel to observe how it all comes together.

Besides a full-time year-round staff, the festival relies on volunteers for a multitude of tasks. Every fall, 3,000 apply, they fill the slots with returning volunteers first, then pick newbies for remaining slots.

We met interesting folks from around the world at our volunteer kick-off party – an Australian bartender, a student from Brazil, a Spanish filmmaker who’s on our theatre team, an aspiring actress from L.A., a Kentucky housewife, a bus driver from Canada, a Cornell grad who runs an event-planning business, an Oregon artist, and a former St. Louisan who never comes back.

Six of 10 volunteers are from Utah. They sure love their state. What’s not to love about the clean, crisp air and wide-open spaces with breathtakingly gorgeous views of the mountains? Park City is 800 feet higher elevation than Salt Lake City, so the weather pattern in the valley is totally separate.

We’re all here for various reasons but we have at least one thing in common: We love movies. To show their appreciation, the festival staff screened the comedy “Submarine” strictly for us volunteers Thursday night. We were jam-packed into the theater, and you could have heard a pin drop – everyone was enthralled. And most everyone stayed in their seats after applauding to read the credits.

The welcoming programmer spoke of the feeling of ‘community’ every year at the fest, and you sense a strong cool vibe too, but it is comparable to a summer camp or old home week – old friends connecting.

What a delightful movie to start the fest with (more on that later), but we will be hearing about this charming, clever coming-of-age tale. Remember the protagonist’s name: Craig Roberts.

The movies that create the biggest buzz here probably won’t arrive in St. Louis until the summer or fall – if past years are any indication.

Last year’s Sundance introduced St. Louisan Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” which is now considered a leading contender in the Oscar category for best documentary.

And the dramatic jury prize winner “Winter’s Bone” has received numerous nominations and year-end critics’ awards.

The major (and minor) celebrities supposedly arrive on the weekend, and Main Street becomes this wall-to-wall place to be seen.

And if that’s not enough excitement, trying to spot James Franco or Demi Moore, the Westboro Church based in Topeka, Kansas, plans to protest Kevin Smith’s new horror film “Red State,” starring John Goodman, on Saturday afternoon.

A ruggedly handsome lad working at the lodge where volunteers got their groove on Wednesday night told me: “Get ready for an incredible journey.”

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

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