Inside a Volunteer’s Festival

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Jesse Dubus

Walking around Park City every January, I can’t shake how strange and random it all seems. Everywhere I go I see a friend who I may or may not have seen for a year, but who I will likely see three times a day for the next week or so. Everyone I meet – and at a film festival, meeting lots of great people is unavoidable – undoubtedly shares multiple friends and acquaintances. Essentially, for 10 days I’m a citizen of a small town where everyone knows everyone – and somehow in this town of several thousand I might know more people than I do in San Francisco, where I spend most of the other 51 weeks of the year. Except this is a bizarre facsimile of a small town where thick-framed glasses and fast-paced walks are the norm. And no one needs to explain to anyone why they’re spending the entirety of a sunny day in dark cinemas or staying out until four in the morning on a Monday night. Or every night. For this blog, I thought I’d share some quick, fragmented stories from this surreal village of cinema.


Part of the fun of volunteering at a festival, rather than working for one or attending one on business, is that you meet some really unlikely people with whom you would never normally be hanging out. When I found out that my roommate’s name was Ducky Garner, I liked him already. It turns out that Ducky is a middle-aged radio DJ from Wilmington, North Carolina. He speaks with a slow drawl that suits his slightly rough, cigarette-stained baritone voice, but it belies his quick wit and innate skill for using his cleverness to get into and out of trouble. Camouflage pants, sports sunglasses with a cable retainer, and his “fishing rodeo” hat are staples of his wardrobe, and he’s often on his cell phone with someone back home, setting up tenants at one of his properties or scheduling a DJ gig. Paired with me, very obviously a northern city kid, we are an odd duo on our shifts as the Theater Ops Runners, but that’s what you get from a squad of film festival volunteers, which often resembles a giant family reunion made up of happy, semi-misfits from all over the world.

The Volunteer Party

The night before the Festival starts is always one of my favorites, as most of the volunteers and staff take over the Park City Mountain Resort’s lodge for a party. I went in eager to get a drink and some food, but it was probably an hour before I made it through saying hello to all of the friends I hadn’t yet run into that I saw on the way. This is maybe my favorite part of Sundance. I work in film exhibition year-round at various festivals and organizations, so I get to know a lot of people on the circuit. I’m sure to have friends at any festival, but Sundance is a different thing entirely. Beyond the dozens (hundreds?) of friends I know will be here, there are always dozens more I had no idea would be here, and every unexpected person is a fantastic surprise. This party is possibly the pinnacle of that phenomenon, and it’s probably not a surprise that I ended the night having a snowball fight in a friend’s hot tub several hours before I needed to start my shift. It was completely worth it.

2011 Volunteer and Staff Party. Photo by Alan Mark.


Ducky and I take turns doing the morning shift, which somewhat comically starts at 6:45 a.m. (Comical because I normally wake up some time between 8 and 9.) I roll out of bed at 6:30 and quickly throw on some clothes before heading to Theater Ops headquarters at Prospector Square, often wondering if that midnight shorts screening or condo party the night before was really worth it. (It always is.) As much discomfort/pain I may be in, it’s very pleasant to drive around Park City at dawn, before most of the cinema village is awake and clogging the streets. I usually get to the office around the same time Bagel Ops does, so I’m able to grab my usual asiago bagel with cream cheese to eat while I drop off supplies to each theater.  By the early afternoon, I’m finished with work and have had enough coffee to convince me I can survive another late night of movies and socializing.

Movies and Socializing

The two major pastimes at Sundance, movie- and party-going, are in some ways a strange match. It can be especially discombobulating to go from spending hours on end by yourself, watching what are often quiet and/or less than uplifting films, to suddenly being thrust into a festive room full of hundreds of people dancing, drinkingm and laughing. The odd juxtaposition was most jarring to me the day I went to a party thrown by one of my employers in San Francisco. I went from a very quiet film with a particularly dark worldview, to a loud and packed room full of friends and colleagues. Given that I hadn’t seen most of them in more than a month, there were many joyful embraces and greetings, which is an odd and slightly overwhelming circumstance just having seen a very sober movie about the end of the world. But that’s Sundance, and negotiating a balance between seeing the very latest in cinema and partying hard with a lot of people you love is a very good problem to have.

Audience at Eccles Theatre. Photo by Calvin Knight.

All in all, volunteering is an insane week-and-a-half full of long days, close bonds, little sleep, and lots of carbs, which, come to think of it, is eerily similar to how people are recruited into the cults featured in several movies at this year’s Festival. But I won’t think too hard about what that means. To paraphrase one of the subjects of Project Nim, a documentary feature here, Sundance 2011 dragged me around by the legs for a while, but it didn’t kill me. It could have. But it didn’t. And I think that means it loves me.

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