Above: W. Kamau Bell, Ryan Coogler, Joana Vicente, Nikyatu Jusu, and Luca Guadagnino attend A Taste of Sundance Presented by IMDbPro
By Stephanie Ornelas
What better way to end Day One than with a party? Sundance Institute’s A Taste of Sundance celebration kicked off the 2023 Film Festival at the Basin Recreation Recreational Fieldhouse in Park City, Utah. The sold out event was proof that the community was ecstatic to be back in person. Presented by IMDbPro, the event honored Luca Guadagnino, W. Kamau Bell, Nikyatu Jusu, and Ryan Coogler for their remarkable contributions to independent cinema, and concluded with an exuberant performance by Indigo Girls that made guests jump out of their seats.
“These last few years have brought extraordinary challenges to our industry along with opportunities to respond to the needs of artists and reach audiences in unique ways,” says Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente. “As many of this year’s films illustrate, this is a moment when so much is at risk — the health of our planet, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and democracy itself.”
While being able to celebrate together again was the main point of A Taste of Sundance, the event raised crucial funds for the essential work Sundance Institute does year round — grants, mentorships, critical resources, and hosting the Festival where new voices are discovered and launcheds.
Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, Bones and All) was honored with the Sundance Institute International Icon Award, and was presented the statue by his Suspiria actor, Dakota Johnson. “Wow, I thought this was going to be an intimate dinner. I didn’t think there would be so many people back at Sundance but thank God,” Johnson says to a laughing audience. “It really feels so great to be in a room together celebrating independent cinema. In my mind — and probably in your mind too — Luca Guadagnino is the epitome of the international icon.”
Guadagnino was thrilled to be honored as he looked back at how he used to dream of cinema as a child. “Being here means so much for all of us. It not only means that we have a chance to gather at this landmark site of independent cinema, but also that we inhabit a moral place where the only thing that counts is the empowerment of cinema and its tireless makers from all over the world,” says the writer-director. “I started dreaming of cinema when I was just a little kid, and I made cinema the country to which I belong. In this sense, Sundance is cinema, and we are all at home here.”
Boots Riley then went on to present Nikyatu Jusu (writer-director of 2022’s Nanny) with the honorary Vanguard Award. Jusu was ecstatic to be joining Coogler, Luca, and Bell in person, and was filled with gratitude. “I continue to sit in appreciation after hearing ‘no’ for so long. Thank you to the Sundance family for ushering in our hyper-ambitious ‘little film that could’ into your warm embrace of incubation. Sundance is the reason the industry can no longer ignore me.”
Roger Ross Willams (Cassandro) then presented the Vanguard Award for a nonfiction film to W. Kamau Bell (We Need to Talk About Cosby). Bell was visibly humbled to be honored next to the other artists at the event. He thanked Sundance Institute for helping propel his career as a filmmaker, but not before acknowledging the eleven survivors who opened up to him for his directorial debut “I would like to think about the incredible sacrifice. The survivors are amazing by just showing up to talk to me and trusting me with their stories. And thank you to Sundance, who, with this honor, has turned me from a niche comedian into a filmmaker.”
Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station) was the final honoree of the night, and was presented with the first annual Sundance Institute | Variety Visionary Award . He gave a powerful speech urging the industry to support independent voices, just as he was supported when he started out.
“When I got the call from Sundance to get this prestigious award, I felt deeply unworthy, and I was a bit confused, but I owe the Institute, and the people who help it function, so much. I really can’t turn down anything.”
Looking back at his first feature film, Fruitvale Station, which premiered ten years ago to the day, Coogler expressed how he had a deep desire to not let people down.
“So many people said yes to me for that project, starting with the family of Oscar Grant. Members of his family were there that night, members of his family are here tonight. And right at the top of that list of folks I didn’t want to let down were the folks who worked here at the Sundance Institute.”
Looking back to when Fruitvale Station had its premiere at the Festival, Coogler remembers someone approaching his mother saying, ‘Your son’s life is about to change.’
“But the truth was that my life had begun to change in years preceding that. A year before I was at the Festival presenting the film, Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker took a chance on me when I was still in film school,” Coogler explains.
“They took a chance on the project, and shortly after that I was accepted into the [Sundance Institute] Feature Film Lab. I remember sitting there and listening to these filmmakers talk about the passion that they had for their first feature films and watching their shorts, and I had this strange feeling that the whole industry was about to change if ever these people got the chance to get their vision out. And boy, was I right.”
Coogler continues, “You hear this term, ‘institution,’ and it sounds like such a big word, but the truth is, when institutions are well-made, it’s really the people that are there working. It’s the people who run this Festival, it’s the people who come in everyday, it’s the volunteers that show up, it’s the people who donate their time and their money. I feel honored to have been a small part of it. I can’t say enough about this place. It’s had a profound impact on me, it’s had such an impact on the industry.”
Coogler concluded with these last few words of encouragement to guests: “It’s an honor to say that it’s up to us to keep [Sundance Institute] going, to make sure it’s stronger, and that it continues on. I think it truly does make the world better to have these voices out there.”
Because when artists have the opportunity to create bold, risk-taking work, the impact is simply profound.