Wharton: Sundance screens movies for high school students

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We live in a world of blockbuster movies. And high school students often prove to be the biggest audiences for films that are often little more than comic book fluff.

That's why Dane Flitton, a Highland High senior and young filmmaker, found attending last year's high school screenings that were part of the Sundance Film Festival so interesting.

He and some other students who are members of Sue Tice's advanced filmmaking class at Highland saw the documentary "Chasing Ice" about melting glaciers around the world last year. They will be seeing "Pandora's Promise" this year. It's another documentary that shows the benefits of nuclear power.

"You don't get to see very many documentaries," said Flitton. "The media world tends to look at blockbuster movies. When you see a documentary and have a good experience, you get moved by what you see."

Tice said Sundance often opens the eyes up of her students to the possibilities of making a documentary.

"A good documentary told in a compelling way can help inspire young filmmakers taking a class," she said.

Movies made by independent filmmakers can also inspire students to produce their own. Flitton is already writing a fictional script that he hopes might be made into a film. And he is gearing his college career, which begins next year, toward filmmaking.

Such stories don't surprise Merdith Lavitt, director of Sundance's Film Forward Initiative, which has helped bring age-appropriate festival movies and their stars and makers to between 5,000 and 6,000 Wasatch Front high school students a year since 2000.

She tells the story of a young woman filmmaker named Alex Mack who attended a Sundance high school screening with Spy Hop Productions, a youth media art center and filmmaking program in Salt Lake City. Mack created a short film called "Mother Superior" that screened at Sundance.

Under the high school screening program, Utah students get an opportunity to enjoy a film festival experience, complete with a question-and-answer session after the screening with filmmakers or their representatives. The movies are screened at festival venues, which this year include Rose Wagner in Salt Lake City, the Redstone in Park City and the Egyptian in Ogden.

"We're always interested in reaching new audiences," said Lavitt. "Connecting audiences to artists is part of our mission. This is a great way to do this during the film festival. We introduce the art of independent film to a very young audience."

She said festival organizers make certain that the films are appropriate for high school audiences. A guide issued before the event lists the movies, reveals what might be slightly offensive and offers a synopsis of what they are about.

Looking at this year's list, which is heavy on documentaries, most of the warnings involve the use of mild language. Lavitt said there have been no problems with the screenings since they began, and the program is growing each year.

"We hear every year from filmmakers that this event is among their favorite festival experiences," she said. "These audiences don't have a film festival industry agenda. They are pure and honest with their questions, which is a litmus test for a filmmaker."

Lavitt said some of the question-and-answer sessions can be quite moving.

For example, at a screening of a movie called "Buck" about a horse whisperer who grew up with a father who physically abused him, the protagonist of the movie was there to answer questions. A student who perhaps was hurt by an abusive parent stood up and said, simply, "Thank you for telling my story."

Previously, students saw a movie called "The D Word" about dyslexia done by Sundance founder Robert Redford's son Jamie.

"We had an amazing response to that story," said Lavitt. "Many students talked about how they had dyslexia or some other sort of condition and that this film made them feel normal or smart because they were not alone. We got an amazing response from teachers who grapple with those issues with their students."

"Chasing Ice," the movie Flitton saw last year, also proved to be popular with high school students. Lavitt said many students sent her letters thanking Sundance for the experience that helped open their minds about an issue they did not know much about. They said the movie turned into a dinner table topic of conversation on the importance of being green.

The gift of challenging audiences to look at something differently or to rethink a preconceived notion is part of turning educated students into the world. And this little-known part of Sundance helps introduce high school students to new and sometimes challenging ways to look at their world.


Twitter @tribtomwharton Sundance high school screening films

2013 Sundance films to be screened for high school students:

Ain't Them Bodies Saint • A story about an impassioned young outlaw couple on an extended crime spree. Stars Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster.

Austenland • Starring Jennifer Coolidge, this comedy deals with a woman's life-long obsession with all things Jane Austen and a vacation to "Austenland."

Blackfish • This is a documentary about 8,000-pound orcas, commonly called killer whales, and their trainers at sea parks.

Blood Brother • This is a documentary about one man's decision to move to India and restart his life among the dispossessed.

Google and the World Brain • This documentary examines the positive and negative aspects of Google's quiet project to scan and digitize every printed word on the planet.

Inequality for All • A sort of Inconvenient Truth for the economy, this documentary features former labor secretary and current University of California-Berkeley Professor Robert Reich and his views that widening income inequality poses one of the most severe threats to our economy and our democracy.

Life According to Sam • This is a documentary about progeria, a rare and fatal disease exemplified by extreme aging in children.

Linsanity • The story of a backup NBA point guard named Jeremy Lin who became an unexpected star in 2012 for the New York Knicks.

Pandora's Promise • Documentarian Robert Stone joins environmentalists, scientists and energy experts in explaining why they have changed their minds from being fiercely anti- to strongly pro-nuclear energy.

The Crash Reel • This a profile of U.S. Champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce exposing the potentially high price of participating in action sports.

The Summit • A look at the mystery of why 11 people died on K2, the second-highest summit in the world, in August of 2008, shortly after 18 of 24 climbers had reached the summit. Program supporters

Sundance Institute and George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation High School Screenings Program Community Supporters:

Mudd Law Offices; Park City Municipal Corporation; Park City Foundation; Park City Rotary; Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks Program; Salt Lake County Economic Development Department; Summit County Recreation Arts and Parks Program; Salt Lake Arts Council; University of Utah; Utah Arts Council; the National Endowment for the Arts.