Literatures, Languages & Cultures

What’s it like to attend the Sundance Film Festival virtually?

Three Film, Exhibition and Curation students talk to us about their experiences of Sundance and how it feels to have their research used by the Festival.

In January, students on our MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation programme attended this year’s virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival.

Given a standard industry pass, they were set the task of answering the phenomenological research question: what is it like to be a member of the virtual audience?

The project was one of two completed by the students as part of Applied Exhibition & Curation, a core, 40-credit course on the MSc programme. It was facilitated by Shona Thomson, a Senior Teaching Fellow on the programme, who established a strong working relationship with Sundance's Industry Relations team.

In this article, students Sofia Aklog, Jen Reeves and Hsin-Hao Wang tell us what they enjoyed about the project, what they feel it added to their experience of studying Film, Exhibition and Curation, and what it meant to know that the research was presented to the Sundance team.

Open to the unexpected

Photo of Sofia Aklog
Sofia Aklog logging on to Sundance

In this project, Sofia, Jen and Hsin-Hao were part of a group of 71 students asked to put aside preconceived ideas about what it might be like to attend a virtual film festival, and to be open to the unexpected.

They experienced the Festival in groups and individually, then wrote, reviewed and selected a range of insights for their tutors to present to four members of the Sundance Film Festival team, including new Festival Director, Tabitha Jackson.

Sofia writes of the “unforgettable experience”... “Attending such an influential and well-established festival during a time in which innovation is necessary for survival and success gave me a new perspective on the possibilities of film exhibition in an industry increasingly defined by the digital space."

"The integration of live events, an incredible selection of streaming films, and the trailblazing - as well as incredibly fun - use of Virtual Reality allowed for countless paths of inquiry for our research.”

I was particularly interested in how this year’s festival focused on accessibility and inclusion. Not only was this the first Sundance held online, but the festival also welcomed a new director, Tabitha Jackson - the first black woman to run Sundance. Jackson’s approach to curation has become a significant inspiration for my own career and it feels incredible to know Jackson and the Sundance team were presented with our research

Sofia AklogMSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation student

A special experience

Photo of Hsin-Hao Wang
Hsin-Hao participating in Sundance Film Festival

Of the 71 student researchers, 41% described themselves as never having been to a film festival before (whether on or offline), rising to 77% for an ‘A-list’ festival.

Like many of his peers, Hsin-Hao was a first-time Sundance attendee, describing it as a “special experience”.

He went on to say “To be honest, it’s amazing. The project allowed me to review my watching experience by using phenomenology - enjoying Sundance as an audience member while studying it as a researcher.”

“Needless to say, I am thrilled that the Sundance team were interested in our project because the online festival created unique experiences for curators, filmmakers, and audiences this year. And I am happy to offer my experience and observation of these events.”

The perfect conditions to study a site of change

When presented with the research, the Sundance team felt that it recognised, and added further insight to, many of their own conversations about what the experience of the festival should feel like to audiences in these times, reflecting back at them many of their thoughts, considerations and values.

As for the students' view of the phenomenological approach, Jen reflects “It was particularly fitting for uncovering such a novel experience – one that had been relatively unexplored before the pandemic.”

“The Festival exemplified just how a new type of collective experience could be achieved across multiple countries and time zones, and how curators could respond to and utilise cataclysmic shifts in the film festival circuit.”

“In this way, the pandemic provided the perfect conditions in which to study the film exhibition and curation industry as a site of change.”

It was exciting to research such a current and pressing issue and especially rewarding to know our work was highly valued by the Sundance team themselves.  

Jen ReevesMSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation student

The MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation is co-directed by Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars. We are delighted to share the news that they have been shortlisted in the CAHSS Recognition Awards at the University of Edinburgh in the Adaptation to Change category.

Are you interested in studying Film, Exhibition and Curation?

Helping you develop an informed, individual and authoritative curatorial voice, our taught Masters programme combines rigorous critical thinking with personal and group experiments in creative practice, deepening your understanding of film and the ways in which it communicates with many audiences. 

Find out more about studying Film, Exhibition and Curation

Related links

Sundance Film Festival