Three bloody marys in, sitting next to my 77-year-old mother on the plane, all I was trying to do was sleep.

I knew I would be landing in Utah in a few hours for the premiere of my documentary short “Betty Feeds the Animals” at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. I knew Slamdance was a big deal, I knew I was nervous, and I knew the whiskey I just ordered was a bad idea. What I didn’t know was that the experience I was about to have would change my perspective on what a film festival should be forever.

Just to get some things out of the way: My mother was with me because she was the star of my documentary and would be much more interesting during the Q&A’s than I would. She also kept calling the festival Sundance by accident, which just amplified her charm. Onward…

Betty, James P. Gannon’s mother and star of the short film “Betty Feeds the Animals.” Image courtesy of Slamdance

After taking a car through the snowy Utah landscape, we ended up at the Slamdance headquarters/theater on Main Street. To give you an idea of the space: Imagine an uppercase “L” fell over clockwise, you enter at the box office, and jetting off to the right is a thin hallway that could fit four people standing side-by-side. Branching off this hallway are the screening rooms—hotel conference rooms converted to theaters. While that might not sound glamorous, the charm and atmosphere of the festival overcome it in spades. That Slamdance is confined to one area is a massive strength. Going there every day, standing in the hallway waiting for the theaters to open, you can’t help but take notice of the same faces over and over again. Through this close proximity, you start to meet people, and it’s the people you meet that are the biggest takeaway from the festival.

I didn’t get to see all of the movies at Slamdance, but I can comment on my favorites, starting with the documentaries: Kifaru which follows the last male northern white rhino during the last days of his life, is simply amazing. Unless you lack all empathy and have a heart of stone, you will not leave this movie with dry eyes. Markie in Milwaukee follows the transgender 7-foot Markie, navigating a world that is harsh and sometimes forgiving: Earth. The film is eye-opening in its consideration of the way people perceive others deemed “different.” The documentary short “Tungrus” is nearly perfect—it’s as funny as it is unpredictable, and ends on an image that will likely be seared into viewers’ brains for life.

The documentary Kifaru follows the last male northern white Rhino, Sudan, and his caretakers. Image courtesy of Slamdance

Watching the narrative feature The Vast of Night felt much like taking in the early work of Kubrick or Spielberg. A sci-fi film that explores a large event through a small town perspective, it oozes of originality and style. Cat Sticks, a black-and-white noir-ish scattershot of the lives of multiple drug users in Calcutta, treats each of its characters in humanistic fashion, as it depicts the different situations people fall into while pursuing their next fix.

Besides meeting the moviemakers, I also met the people behind the scenes making the festival happen—those busting their humps daily not because of money, but because they believe in what they’re doing. A lesser-known fact is that Slamdance is programmed by its alumni moviemakers, so by getting into the festival, you’re essentially being told by your peers that your film is special and deserves to be seen. While it seems that the behemoth of Sundance has completely taken over its Park City, Utah stomping grounds, Slamdance stands as the underdog. We all know we didn’t get into the festival “across the street,” but that’s what unites us: We’re part of a different team, one that supports originality and art more than commercial viability. MM

Slamdance Film Festival runs January 24-30, 2020. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue. Featured Image: Freezing filmmakers get a warm DGA welcome at Slamdance’s 25th-anniversary run. Photograph by Lauren Desberg.