In the current great renaissance of documentary filmmaking, Salt Lake City has proven to be one of the best places in the United States for audiences eager to break away from their codependent addictions to mainstream entertainment. No doubt, the Utah Film Center (UFC), which is marking its 10th anniversary this season, has played a fundamental role in this development.
With a name change this season – known for its first nine years as the SLC Film Center – the organization is poised to carve its place among the state’s preeminent cultural institutions. In broadening its outreach to Logan, Ogden, Moab, St. George, and other state locations, the UFC uses film – which founder and board chair Geralyn Dreyfous says is so ideally flexible and portable as a form of creative expression – to capture and cultivate a socially connected network that is inspired by film to take up the “what can we do” challenge for creating better engagements in our community.
It was that recognition of film’s capacity to inspire a community-based identity that overcomes the constraints of contentious dichotomies and social fragmentation, which inspired Dreyfous, along with Nicole Guillemet and Kathryn Toll, to form the center in 2002. The original proposal called for the project to be a local adjunct to the Sundance Film Festival, of which Guillemet was co-director at the time. However, in the spring of that year, Guillemet moved to take charge of the Miami International Film Festival.
Dreyfous brought Toll on board and both women, with impressive portfolios in both philanthropy and the film industry, knew instinctively the center could flourish first by capitalizing upon their close connections with filmmakers and industry distributors and then by collaborating with local organizations with goals and objectives that dovetail with the content of film screenings.
The first film screened was ‘Promises,’ a 2001 documentary chronicling three years of experiences for seven Jewish and Palestinian children living in Jerusalem. The Oscar-nominated film, which racked up many honors at some of the best-known international cinematic festivals, played to a standing-room-only audience at a screening, which featured Justine Shapiro, one of the film’s directors, in a Q&A afterward.
Since then, more than 500 directors, producers, and actors have appeared at UFC screenings and the availability of digital technologies such as Skype have even made it easier for audiences to start a dialogue with a filmmaker. And, of course, to mark its anniversary, UFC is offering programs featuring Geena Davis, John Waters, and many others.
So encouraging was audience reaction to UFC’s first screenings that it wasn’t long before the center’s programming expanded from one screening per month to weekly and eventually to the common two to three screenings each week now. In recent years, the annual attendance at UFC programs, of which nearly all are free and open to the public, has easily topped 20,000.
Those numbers likely will continue to grow at a faster pace especially as UFC widens its slate of programming not only throughout Utah but also with smartly curated film festivals of its own. A single screening of a documentary about climate issues drew more than 130 people at Dixie State College, a new venue for UFC programs.
The center opened its anniversary year last month with the first-ever Gandhi Film Festival, cosponsored with the Gandhi Alliance for Peace. The opening film – the 2008 biographical documentary ‘The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan: A Torch for Peace’ – played to a packed City Library auditorium and audience members talked extensively with Teri McLuhan, the film’s director.
Last spring, effectively achieving the capacity to provide essentially lifelong cinematic programming for Utah residents, the UFC held its first Tumbleweeds Film Festival, the only large-scale cinema gathering in the Intermountain West geared exclusively toward children, which also played to large audiences.
Likewise, attendance has continued to grow at the Damn! These Heels LGBT Film Festival, which will have its ninth run next June. This festival, in particular, signifies UFC’s customary sensitivity for programming in how it reflects the most current pulse on the most prominent issues concerning social and political awareness. For example, the most recent festival underscored the growing public opinion acceptance that marriage rights and economic equality regardless of sexual orientation or identity were important.
Therefore, the lineup represented films of solid artistic measure with aesthetic attributes and storytelling elements that appeal to a broadly diversified audience regardless of sexual orientation and identity. The festival’s storytelling emphasis was less on political points than on the everyday issues of love, happiness, and personal epiphanies, which everyone faces.
Similarly, the ‘Tillman Story’ which aired last spring in four Utah cities as part of the center’s Films Without Border series opened up a dialogue with director Amir Bar-Lev who answered audience questions at all of the screenings. It became evident that the film did not represent a battle between hawks and doves or between atheists and religious adherents or set out to ascribe blame to a specific group for covering up the details behind Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan seven years ago.
Indeed, if one wants to find a commonly accessible thread which runs through the 170 or so films the center screens each year is how a monumental cast of governmental officials, military leaders, corporate elites, journalists, talk-show hosts, celebrity pundits, public relations ‘spin doctors,’ and savvy, opportunistic marketers contribute substantially to blurring the lines of entertainment and information for the sake of a production that hardly represents realities with which audiences identify on a daily basis.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to name an issue, event, phenomenon, icon or cultural element that hasn’t been touched upon in one way or another during the center’s first 10 years. A Creativity in Focus series, in collaboration with the Salt Lake Art Center, has featured experimental films as well as top-rated documentaries dealing with artists such as Banksy, Chuck Close, and Basquiat that compel the local art community to face and discuss the challenges of generating visibility for its own work while wrestling with the temptations of making it big without sacrificing their authentic creative voices.
Body image, civil rights, food sustainability, gender and sexuality, environmental protection and preservation, civil rights, immigration reform, Islam, Africa, and literature have appeared among countless other themes. International cinema, including Spanish language films, also has become a regular component of UFC’s annual programming. Afternoon film series for seniors and retired citizens are offered periodically free of charge.
In its second decade, UFC hopes to build upon the expanding film-literate community of Utah with programs that give more opportunity to local filmmakers to hone their storytelling skills, according to Dreyfous, a Harvard graduate who has assembled an impressive portfolio as a producer and executive producer of more than 15 films including the Academy-Award-winning documentary ‘Born Into Brothels.’ UFC has joined with the Salt Lake Film Society and Spy Hop Productions in hopes of developing a film and digital media facility with production and exhibition capabilities in some of the space of the old Utah Theater in downtown. While the concept has been identified in the master plan for development of a cultural campus that would ultimately link all of the existing and proposed arts and culture facilities, no firm initiatives have yet been made.
As a strong testament to the UFC’s success, Dreyfous also has assembled a staff with significant experience in filmmaking and philanthropy. Missy Dawson, the current executive director, started out in journalism before moving to nonprofit organizational management and development. She came to Utah in 2009 after serving as the senior manager of the San Francisco Symphony’s Second Century Campaign, which raised more than $120 million for the symphony’s core programs and endowment.
In the same year, Patrick Hubley, joined as the UFC’s artistic director. His portfolio includes substantial press, event producing, and consulting experience with Sundance and the Sundance Institute, the Toronto International Film Festival, CineVegas Film Festival, and the Dubai International Film Festival.
Marcie Collett, the center’s current development manager, brings extensive experience from Denver in coordinating various adult literacy programs. Likewise, Levi Elder, communications manager and programmer, has professional credits with several major studios and festivals including Tribeca, the American Film Institute, the Middle Eastern International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, and Ireland’s Kerry Film Festival.
One of the most familiar faces on the Salt Lake City cultural and arts scene, Mariah Mann Mellus keys the center’s membership and outreach activities. A writer and event coordinator, she brings broad experience from the ski and extreme sports industries as well as organizations dealing with global youth cultural outreach programs.
Rounding out the staff are Keb Brady, business manager and executive assistants Kelsie Jepsen and Sarah Mohr.
It is worth noting the breadth and depth of experience UFC staff members bring to the table, which will be essential for carrying forward the center’s founding mission. No doubt, everyone sees the strategic opportunities in the cost-effective transportability of films as the center cultivates larger and new audiences especially in other parts of the states. Certainly, initial responses to screenings in locations outside of Salt Lake City have been justifiably heartening.
However, Dreyfous and her staff also are focused on the transformative potential of their work for a state that definitively is not as conservative or as reactionary as what mainstream media and pundits often characterize. Miles Horton, who is one of the best-known teachers of social movement leaders, wrote in his 1990 autobiography ‘The Long Haul’:
‘If we are to have democratic society, people must find or invent new channels through which decisions can be made . . . the problem is not that people will make irresponsible or wrong decisions. It is, rather, to convince people who have been ignored or excluded in the past that their involvement will have meaning and that their ideas will be respected. The danger is not too much, but too little participation.’
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