PARK CITY, Utah — While the fervor over the snowy glamor that is the Sundance Film Festival is usually reserved for Los Angeles stars and New York art-house directors, Chicago’s film community has made its presence known this year. Local arts figures were selected to be members of three different juries at the 2018 iteration of the festival.
Over the course of a week and a half in Park City, Chaz Ebert is serving as one of five jurors for the U.S. Documentary Competition, while Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg is helping to judge the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Earlier, cartoonist Chris Ware served with two other artists on the the Short Film Jury. All are bringing their unique Chicago lenses to the industry’s most highly anticipated film festival.
First introduced to Sundance by her late husband, Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert has forged her own partnerships with the festival. “Sundance and I have the same goal of increasing access to artists and building a more inclusive, independent and compassionate society,” Ebert said.
In June 2013, just two months after Roger Ebert’s passing, Robert Redford, Sundance’s founder and executive director, reached out to Chaz Ebert about starting a fellowship in Roger’s name. Out of that, the Ebert Sundance Fellowship was born, naturally in support of emerging and diverse voices in film criticism but open to aspiring critics, writers, and filmmakers alike.
This year, Ebert and her team decided that, out of over 300 applications, they would choose three African-American males, a group she feels has been historically excluded from mentorship opportunities in the arts. One of the three fellows is a Chicago native, filmmaker Brandon Towns, whom Ebert met through Columbia College’s now-defunct Links journalism program.
“I’ve followed his career a little bit,” said Ebert about Towns, “and I thought this would be a good environment for him because he’s primarily interested in filmmaking, and he loves storytelling.” She hopes that Towns and the other two fellows, Jomo Fray and Garry Wilkerson Jr., will come away from the experience with a better understanding of the need to filter their writing and filmmaking through the values of empathy, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.
Her adherence to these values and her belief that Sundance also holds these dear is why she is so honored to serve on a jury at her 26th Sundance. Though working as a producer and writer in both fiction and documentary worlds, Ebert was especially happy to be judging the 16 U.S. documentaries in competition because, for her, the medium fills her with such passion. “Documentary filmmaking,” said Ebert, “gets right to the soul of what makes us human and what makes us tick and how we relate to and support each other in the world.”
As a leading female voice at the festival, Ebert, a former litigator who tried numerous sexual harassment cases, has felt that the turning points of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have manifested in the films and dialogue at this first post-Weinstein Sundance. But for her, that’s just one step in a much larger movement. “Now it’s time to stop just looking at celebrities or high-profile people,” Ebert said “because the people who are most often the victims are hourly wage workers and women of color. Just think, if a movie star feels powerless, how powerless a waitress would be.”
In his typically self-effacing fashion, Ware, a renowned cartoonist and graphic novelist best known for his “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” and the Chicago-centric “Building Stories,” said via email that he wasn’t sure why he was picked to serve on the Short Film Jury.
With 8,740 initial submissions whittled down to 69 competing films, Ware and his two fellow jurors were tasked with selecting the best animated, fiction and documentary short films from around the world. Clocking in at an average of 10 minutes each, shorts are grouped together to create 90-minute screening programs, showcasing everything from an animated documentary about a porn actress from Switzerland in “Intimity” to an absurdist comedy pretending to be a Minnesota public access painting show in “Painting with Joan.”
Halfway through his time at the festival, Ware told me via email that he felt excited by the artistic freedom and experimentation demonstrated he’s seen in the short films. “Seeing such a wide variety of approaches and, for lack of a better word, esthetic consciousnesses, has reminded me to open my horizons and take in more of the world,” Ware said.
Ebert, Swanberg and Ware are presiding over a Sundance with a strong Chicago presence. The Chicago Media Project-funded documentary “306 Hollywood” premiered in the festival’s NEXT section, and CMP’s other documentary “Dark Money” held its world premiere along with Kartemquin Films’ “Minding the Gap” in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
In the first ever screening of Sundance’s newly formed Indie Episodic section, Kartemquin also premiered its docu-series “America to Me,” which explores America’s charged state of race, culture and education through a year with students, teachers and administration at Oak Park River Forest High School.
“I’ve definitely seen Chicago’s presence at Sundance grow,” said Ebert. Ware feels that Chicago’s emerging status as a hub for film and television production is due to the varied and diverse perspectives that find a home in the city. “Chicago has a Midwestern transparency that suits its everytown status,” said Ware. “What’s good about this status is that ‘everytown’ now means Lena Waithe’s Chicago and Joe Swanberg’s Chicago and my Chicago and Kerry James Marshall’s Chicago, not just one version of the city. I hope lots more Chicagos become visible.”
Ware and his fellow jurors announced the short film awards on Tuesday, with North Park University alumnus Alvaro Gago winning the Grand Jury Prize for his short film “Matria.” Ebert and Swanberg will deliberate with their respective juries this week on U.S. Documentary and U.S. Dramatic awards to be announced Saturday.
Max Asaf is Development Coordinator for Kartemquin Films.