By Vanessa Zimmer
Volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival might mean sitting next to Bill Gates, unknowingly chatting with Sting — or creating your very own character and welcoming film lovers with your best reggae accent aboard the shuttle you’ve renamed the Caribbean Express.
For Mary Helms, who has been volunteering for 19 years at the Festival, it also means inventing a vocabulary word that she now uses year-round: Sundancey. The Omaha, Nebraska, woman and her friends label movies that are fresh and inventive as “Sundancey.”
Helms first attended the Festival in 1998 while visiting friends in Salt Lake City. They watched 18 films in six days, which she enjoyed so much that she vowed: “I’ve got to volunteer.” She would schedule her vacation time from her job as a medical librarian at the University of Nebraska Medical Center so she could travel to Utah. “It was a wild thing I did every year,” in sharp juxtaposition to the orderly, structured life of a librarian, she says in a phone interview.
She watched her first subtitled film at the Festival (Adam’s Apples) and learned to love documentaries (The Aristocrats, Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work). “I like docs because I like to/want to learn new things. As a librarian, new-information gathering is part of the package.”
One year, she took a seat near the back of the theater to watch the premiere of Real Women Have Curves and found herself next to legendary critic Roger Ebert. “He was such a gentleman and really fun to talk with. He was always happy to meet and greet fans,” she remembers. They talked quietly about the multitude of films, the atmosphere, the novelty of seeing Hollywood talent on Park City’s streets. They both liked the film “very, very much.”
Nowadays, she rarely misses a film at Omaha’s Film Streams arthouse. You’ll find her there two or three times a week, scouting out all films “Sundancey.”
Drawn in by the opportunity to sit in on film screenings, some 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers contribute an astounding 80,000 to 100,000 hours at every 10-day Sundance Film Festival, says talent recruiter Brian Marquez.
Once there, he adds, they find “instant friends.” He’s known volunteers who met at the Festival and now regularly plan vacation trips together. He’s known volunteers who cry when learning they’re accepted into the volunteer program. One regular volunteer had to take a year off after a cancer diagnosis and returned the following year to a massive welcome-back party. Another had emergency surgery right before the Festival one year and, upon coming out of anesthesia, labored to communicate to family: “Tell Sundance I can’t come.” (Don’t worry, she recovered to volunteer again!)
Most volunteers are retired or college-age, 48 percent of them from Utah, and 60–70 percent return year after year. Nori Huntsman fits that demographic: A resident of West Valley City, Utah, she put volunteering at the Festival on her bucket list for retirement (“The volunteers always looked like they were having a great time,” she explains in a phone interview), and she’s followed through for the last half-dozen years.
Among their duties, the volunteers manage theaters, take tickets, shovel snow, provide customer service, run errands, and drive staff to venues around Park City.
Hip replacement willing, Maryann Ingersoll, of Houston, will be back at the Festival for her 18th year. She got started when she and her husband bought land and built a home on Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah, back when there were maybe five houses in that now-crowded Ogden-area ski resort community. They were so in love with their new surroundings and the awesome skiing that they began to huddle: “What can we do for Robert Redford, Utah, and our place in Powder Mountain?”
The answer: Volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival, founded by their favorite Downhill Racer actor and a director they admired. “I’ve had the most wonderful experience for many years,” Ingersoll gushes.
One day, handling ticketing at the Sundance Resort, she engaged a “nice young man in a wool cap” in conversation.
“Is this your first Sundance?” she asked.
“Yes. How about you?” he replied pleasantly.
He moved on into the theater, and Ingersoll’s partner in ticketing gasped: “Do you know who you were talking to, Maryann? That was Sting!”
Ingersoll defends herself: “I’m at the point I don’t recognize the actors [or big names] as much anymore. I have to really pay attention.”
Volunteers Fay Blackburn and Oscar Arce clown around at the Festival. Photo courtesy Oscar Arce
Actor-sighting stories never get old. Matt Sanders, of Bryant, Texas, ushered Hillary Rodham Clinton out of a theater. The same year, Bill Gates came in and sat beside Sanders at a screening for Worth, a 2020 film starring Michael Keaton that explores the value of human life in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“A very interesting film to watch sitting next to one of the richest men in the world!” Sanders marvels. The two didn’t converse. Gates and then-wife Melinda entered after the lights came down and left while the credits were still rolling.
But Sanders noticed Gates chewing on the ends of his glasses during the film. “I remember from his documentary series on Netflix that he does that when he’s interested or engaged — a great nod to the filmmakers, I’d say!”
When Viggo Mortensen brought his directorial debut Falling to the same Festival, Oscar Arce was called away from his post, where he was scanning tickets. He feared he’d done something wrong. The theater manager quietly led Arce to the volunteers lounge, then volunteers spirited him away to the green room. There was Ariadna Gil, a Spanish actress and Mortensen’s longtime companion. “She looked calm but a bit lost. She didn’t know much English, and the volunteers from the green room didn’t know Spanish, so they called me to be with her for anything she needed.”
Hailing from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, Arce is bilingual. After the film, the couple warmly shared their goodbyes. “Thank you very very much for your help,” Mortensen said in Spanish. “You helped (Ariadna), I would never forget that.”
“I was so happy and excited for helping her, of course,” Arce said, “but also for that honest moment I had with them. They talked like real people and not celebrities.”
Devon Edwards was named the winner of the 2020 Gayle Stevens Volunteer Award for his dedication to the mission of the Sundance Institute.
The chance to watch multiple films and the thrill of mingling with filmmakers and actors aren’t the only, maybe not even the best, reasons to volunteer at the Festival. Those who donate their time point out the friendships they’ve made among co-volunteers, the camaraderie of the group — Ingersoll, creating another new vocabulary word, calls it “Sundancing” — and the stimulating and heartening effect of the gathering.
In 2012 Devon Edwards was eight months out of Columbia College Chicago, with a bachelor’s degree in film and nothing to show for it. He felt defeated. “I was on a search for a purpose,” he says.
He had the idea that the Sundance Film Festival was only for the elite, but one day he started exploring the website and, four hours later, discovered: “Wait a minute, Sundance has volunteers??” He immediately applied. Before he knew it, he was there.
“I had never been to Utah before and, to be quite honest, didn’t think that this was a place that I would ever visit. I mean all the westerns were shot here, and I am a city boy from Chicago. My first day on the mountain in Park City in the wintertime, I thought, ‘Hmm… this is cold as it gets? Ain’t got nothing on Chicago!’ ”
He found the landscape “majestic” and the Festival vibe uplifting. “It rejuvenated the entire creative response,” he remembers. There, he met his idol, Ava DuVernay, who was screening her film Middle of Nowhere. Recharged, he went back to grad school for a master’s degree in cinema production and eventually worked for DuVernay’s ARRAY, distributing posters and flyers around Chicago.
He now lives in Los Angeles, where he just wrapped a Super Bowl commercial and recently worked as a producer’s assistant on the Shining Vale horror TV series starring Courtney Cox — both slated for 2022. His closest friends are those he met at the Festival and Sundance-supported events.
Honored in 2020 with the Gayle Stevens Volunteer Award for his passion and dedication to the Sundance Institute, he is the guy who entertained folks on the Caribbean Express van.
Edwards is that upbeat community service–oriented fellow — he served in three branches of the military, volunteers at his church and as a youth leader, and remains in remission from life-threatening lupus and kidney disease.
He looks forward to that journey to the Festival every year: “Some of us come to get inspired.”