Celebrating the Festival’s Army of Volunteers

Volunteers at the Egyptian Theatre.

Keith Harten

Every January, over 1,800 volunteers ascend to Park City, Utah, to work tirelessly for no pay. Last night, Sundance Institute offered its thanks by throwing them a party. It was just one event on Volunteer Appreciation Day, which also included a special film screening for volunteers and a vignette before every film that screened at the Festival thanking the volunteers for their service.

As is readily apparent to anyone who attends Sundance, volunteers make no small contribution to the festival. They run prints, empty trash, work at special events, run box offices and theaters, and perform a host of other services both in front of and behind the scenes.

Emily Aagaard, who herself began as a volunteer seven years ago, now manages the Sundance volunteer program full time. She explains the Festival’s impulse to give back: “People give so much of their time volunteering in just these two weeks that we can’t help but express appreciation.”

The relationship is mutually beneficial. Sundance gives its volunteers exclusive gear, provides many of them lodging during the festival and, best of all, offers them the opportunity to experience independent film and be part of a passionate community of indie film enthusiasts. In return, the festival receives an army of supporters who believe in what the festival represents and couldn’t be happier to give their time and energy to the festival and its patrons.

Ely Beers-Altman, a volunteer who, like many others, traveled to Sundance from out of state, says his favorite part of the festival is the moment just before a film begins. “In that five seconds, you are all being brought together by the story,” says Beers-Altman. “I always smile in the theater when that happens.” Beers-Altman enjoys volunteering for the festival, because it offers him a way to stay connected to a community of passionate learners: “Our discussions on buses and on breaks are about the involvement we feel in specific films, and that dialogue between volunteers is great. It’s like you’re in college again.”

Volunteers don’t just contribute through the work they perform. They also help shape the culture of Sundance. “Volunteers give the festival this unique personality, because we have such a mix of people from everywhere,” says Aagaard. “All of them love being able to see films, and I think that’s what the festival is about – all these people coming together to experience these stories.”

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Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in 'Miss Juneteenth,' coming to digital platforms June 19

Channing Godfrey Peoples on a Bittersweet ‘Miss Juneteenth’ Release and the Urgency of Portraying Black Humanity on Screen

After premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut feature is hitting digital platforms this Juneteenth—the day for which the film is named and which is very close to the director’s heart. “I feel like I’ve been living Miss Juneteenth my whole life,” she says.
The June 19 holiday—which commemorates the day slavery was finally abolished in Texas (more than two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was issued)—is celebrated in her hometown of Fort Worth with a deep sense of reverence and community, with barbecues, a parade, and a scholarship pageant for young Black women.

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