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Navigating Sundance: Student-focused festival program rigorously screens films' content

Published: Friday, Jan. 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Festival goers wait outside the historic Egyptian Theater on the first day of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011. Mike Terry, Deseret News

Mike Terry, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Every year the Sundance Film Festival presents a curious conundrum for some locals.

On the one hand, Utahns can conveniently attend the world-famous festival to seek out enriching experiences courtesy of cutting-edge independent filmmakers.

But plenty of folks just choose to avoid the Sundance scene altogether because every movie is both unrated and showing as a world premiere — meaning there are essentially no tools available for knowing what type of objectionable content any given film will contain.

But what if there was a better way, a way in which content-conscious patrons could sample Sundance without having to worry about seeing the silver screen fill up with egregious nudity or bone-chilling violence or both?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we're here to tell you that this "better way" really does exist. It's called the Utah High School Screening Series.

Every year Sundance Institute works with several local school districts to give teenage students the chance to attend special showings of festival entries. These selections — usually documentaries — are rigorously screened ahead of time by Sundance staff to ensure compliance with the dual threshold of minimal objectionable content and maximum intellectual stimulation.

Bottom line: If you go see one of the dozen films selected for this year's high school series (see attached box for full list), you can have the peace of mind knowing you won't be ambushed by a glut of objectionable content.

"Our job is to look at the films that have been (selected for the festival) and then determine which of those are appropriate for high school students," said Meredith Lavitt, associate director of Utah Community Programs for Sundance Institute. "Those are films where language is not an issue, extreme violence is not an issue, sex and sexuality are not issues — they're what we would consider very family-friendly films. We go through them and we watch them and program them based on that criteria."

This year's festival, which runs Jan. 19-29, will mark the third consecutive time that Canyons School District director of partnerships and community services Kathy Anderson shepherds students to Sundance screenings.

"I need you to understand that I was very concerned at first about taking our high school students because none of these films are rated," Anderson said. "But … Sundance has worked with us just laboriously to make sure it's a good experience for our students. They did an absolutely amazing job in the screening of the films that they suggested were high school student-appropriate. They were magnificent films."

The Utah High School Screening Series will show films on weekdays at three locations: Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City, Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden and Redstone Cinemas in Park City. The program is made possible by financial support from local sponsors such as Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks.

"From the Zoo, Arts and Parks perspective, we love the fact that they're reaching out to high schools," ZAP program manager Victoria Bourns said. "A lot of the films that they show give students an eye on the world that they might not have (and) a sense of what is going on in other parts of the world — people who maybe live differently, have a different perspective than you have."

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

SUNDANCE FILMS FOR STUDENTS

Sundance 2012 at the Utah High School Screening Series:

"The Atomic States of America"

"Queen of Versailles"

"Finding North"

"We're Not Broke"

"Chasing Ice"

"The Other Dream Team"

"The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia"

"ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare"

"5 Broken Cameras"

"Putin's Kiss"

"China Heavyweight"

"Monsieur Lazhar"

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