Seminary students descend on Sundance, find meaning in independent films
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PARK CITY — Around 9 a.m. during the Sundance Film Festival, the theaters are full and patrons are anxiously waiting in line hoping they can fill an empty seat, while others have stayed in bed after a late night of movie-going, dancing and partying.
Or, there are about 120 students and faculty members from seminaries and schools around the country meeting in The Branch, a local Christian church obscured by the banners and signs directing Sundance participants to parking, theaters and transportation hubs in this resort town.
The group is part of the Windrider Forum that seeks out films that speak to faith, family, belonging, redemption, spirituality, love and current issues.
"We are here to discuss issues that matter to us," said Kutter Callaway, who teaches theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, which pulls together the annual field trip for any faith-based school that wants to participate.
And while students are interested in the filmmaker's craft, they also ask filmmakers about the message and meaning of the movies they make.
"We have had some directors come away saying that interacting with our group is the best experience they had at Sundance because it’s a group of people that wants to talk about the heart of their film, while the rest of Sundance is more marketing and PR driven," Callaway said.
Wind and spirit
Will Stoller-Lee, executive director of the forum and director of Fuller's campus in Colorado Springs, Colo., said the forum started convening in Sundance 10 years ago.
"There were films we knew for sure that would have religious topics but there would be others that addressed broader issues of spirituality, justice or forgiveness," Stoller-Lee said. "So we knew there would be plenty of good content, but we were pleasantly surprised to see how many specifically dealt with religious faith. That's been true of every year we have been here and this year is no exception."
Among those films this year is the "Overnighters," a documentary about how a Lutheran pastor created tension within the community and his congregation by turning the church into a boarding house for men who have come to town looking for work in the nearby oil fields.
Thursday, the group met with the film's director and the Lutheran pastor.
At Wednesday's question-and-answer session, the directors of "Web Junkie," a documentary that explores the causes and treatment of Internet addiction among youths in China, spoke and fielded questions about how the Internet can impact human relationships and family dynamics.
Picking up on themes of loss and longing in the discussion with the directors, Callaway followed up by asking the students, who were sitting at tables in a large open area of the church, to break out into small groups and discuss how those themes were addressed in other films they saw the day before.
The name Windrider comes from the Hebrew and Greek words for wind and spirit, which are the same, Stoller-Lee said.
"We ride with the wind and will connect in spirit," he said.
Callaway said the group has to approach the festival with that kind of attitude. While the participants identify and secure tickets to films before the festival begins, they also stay flexible enough to change plans once they arrive and hear about other films that may interest them.
But there are some things forum organizers don't leave to chance when putting together the class for students who came from seven different faith-based schools around the country this year. For instance, housing, which can be pretty pricey for those lucky enough to find a vacancy during the 10-day festival.
Stoller-Lee said when he reached out a few years ago to the community for help in hosting students, the Park City Utah Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded. LDS Church members house most of the forum's students and faculty during the festival.
And this year, the forum scheduled a screening of the upcoming feature film "Son of God" at the Park City Utah Stake center on Friday. Producer and Christian Mark Burnett will attend and discuss the film that depicts the life of Jesus Christ and is set to open in theaters nationwide on Feb. 28.
"It should be a wonderful evangelical-Mormon conversation surrounding a Hollywood-produced Jesus movie," Callaway said.
Arts and faith
Because of the close proximity of Fuller's Pasadena, Calif., campus to Hollywood, the seminary has long fostered a relationship with the entertainment industry, in particular with writers, directors, producers and actors who have an interest in incorporating religion into what they produce. The seminary uses those connections in its courses and degrees in theology and culture, which was a draw for students like Mel Chambers, who is an actor.
"I want to use the arts as a means of reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus in India," said Chambers, a 27-year-old graduate student in intercultural studies at Fuller.
Among the films she hopes to see at Sundance are feature films "Liar's Dice," an Indian film about a woman searching for her husband, and "Fishing Without Nets," which tells a story of modern-day piracy from the Somalian pirates' point of view.
"We talk a lot about understanding the other, so we can reach out and help them," Chambers said, explaining her interest in the Somalian piracy flim.
Another Fuller student and forum participant, Pete Sung, a 40-year-old former college math teacher who received his calling to the ministry later in life, said he sees film as a medium that can complement his work as a pastor.
"I feel the call to be a preacher and a filmmaker," said Sung, who studies the short documentary genre as a way to help believers share their personal stories that would otherwise go unnoticed or unheard.
He said that pastors must use other media, in addition to preaching from the pulpit, to connect with younger generations.
"This is a different age — the information age — but it goes beyond text," Sung said. "This is also the visual age and to at least have an appreciation of the visual medium is a mandatory requirement."
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