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MFA Students Tout Films, Learn Industry at Sundance

Elaine Mcmillion Sheldon speaks to students while they all sit at a table
Elaine McMillion Sheldon, MFA ‘13, whose documentary King Coal premiered at the festival, spoke to students at one of the daily breakfast talks organized by Anna Feder. Photo/Mark Murphy

For a dozen Emerson MFA grad students attending the prestigious Sundance Film Festival was both business and pleasure.

“I think from coming to Sundance, students see a path for themselves in the industry after participating in this program,” said Anna Feder, head of film exhibition and festival programs, and curator of the Bright Lights Cinema Series. “They focus on finding their voice as filmmakers, and hone their craft at Emerson. But for a lot of them, this is the first opportunity at an industry event at a place they could see themselves attending as a filmmaker in a few years.”

The festival is regarded as both an industry and public film festival, so the students could check out films and take advantage of networking opportunities to gain support for their own film. All of the students are working on their thesis films, and thus could talk about their project in some capacity, said Feder.

Left to right: Hanadi Elyan, Andrea Montoni, Rob Sabal, and David Howse sit at a table
Left to right: Hanadi Elyan, VMA assistant professor; Emerson College Board Trustee Andrea Montoni ’78; School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal; David Howse, VP of the Office of the Arts and Institutional Advancement and executive director of ArtsEmerson. Photo/Mark Murphy

The trip is part of a class taught by Visual and Media Arts Assistant Professor Hanadi Elyan, and there was only one requirement for the Emerson students: attend the five morning breakfast talks. The non-tuition credit trip is possible due to the support of Emerson Trustee Andrea Montoni ’78, who attended the festival and breakfast talks curated by Feder.

“Sundance Film Festival is a unique opportunity for Emerson film students to engage with experienced filmmakers and get a vision of what their future could be,” said Montoni. “Every year I am so impressed with the group of graduate students we take. I am so happy I can provide them this opportunity.”

Additionally, about 125 people attended the Alumni Relations’ annual event, which coincided with the student program, for networking with alumni and industry professionals.

Four of the five breakfast talks featured alums like Elaine McMillian Sheldon MFA ‘13, whose documentary King Coal premiered at the festival, and writer/actor/producer John Crye ‘93 and actor/producer Michelle Gardner ’95.

Read about more Emerson College alumni who worked on films screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Isabel Miranda, MFA ’23 came to network with documentarians and gain inspiration from documentaries incorporating narrative techniques such as animation, re-enactments, and voiceover. She also wanted to promote her thesis project, a personal hybrid documentary.

El Tio Viajero revolves around questions of identity between my father and I,” said Miranda. “Through sharing my documentary with filmmakers and attendees at Sundance, I was interested in gathering an audience for my film.”

She also found inspiration for her next film from watching the documentary Twice Colonized by Lin Alluna.

“I was so moved by Twice Colonized, it had me asking so many questions about my father and grandparents relating to loss of language and culture due to colonization,” said Miranda. “Overall, I feel I took a lot out of my experience in Sundance, both for helping me continue to work on my current thesis film, but also for future projects.”

Aizzah Fatima and Iman Zawahry
Aizzah Fatima, MFA ’21 and Emmy Award winner Iman Zawahry spoke with students at one of the breakfast talks. Photo/Mark Murphy

Sundance is a large festival and most venues are not physically close to each other, so Feder advised the students keep their daily schedules flexible with several options, in case plans didn’t pan out. Before going, Miranda reviewed different panels, screenings, and events occurring at the festival and created a schedule of what she was interested in attending each day.

Feder also encouraged the young filmmakers to be prepared to promote their own projects.

Miranda created business cards with a QR code that led to her GoFundMe page for her thesis film, as well as her website.

Like Miranda, Yi-Chien Lee, MFA ’23 came prepared to promote her film, TAIL.

TAIL is a body horror comedy about a woman with her ex-lover’s penis stuck inside her vagina. Since it is quite an unconventional film, I know my festival strategies must be more tactical,” said Lee.

Lee prepared three things to promote herself: business cards, postcards, and a T-shirt. The postcard and T-shirt have a QR code that brings the audience to TAIL’s trailer and Instagram account.

Yi-Chien Lee in her T-shirt for her film TAIL.
Yi-Chien Lee, MFA ’23 in a T-shirt for her film, TAIL.

Her approach to find the film’s target audience was to go to movies with more edge, such as the midnight program. She focused on films featuring female filmmakers, female experience, and sexuality. She also looked into the Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative film festival happening at the same time and in the same area as Sundance. TAIL will also be shown as part of the Bright Lights Cinema Series MFA thesis screening this May .

“After the first few days of ‘networking,’ and relentlessly trying to give out my postcard and laughing at jokes that weren’t so funny, I realized I had to approach it differently,” said Lee. “Instead of seeing everyone as a ladder for me to climb, I started to connect with people in a much more casual and personal way.”

While TAIL didn’t create the buzz she wanted, Lee learned a lot from her experience. Lee said the harsh reality of Sundance is everyone wants to talk to the most important person the room.

John Crye, Michelle Gardner
John Crye ’93 speaks with fellow guest speaker Michelle Gardner ’95 next to him. (Photo by Mark Murphy)

“I learned to be fearless about walking up to strangers for small talk and genuine connections. And these unexpected friendships and exchanges were the part I enjoyed the most about the Sundance trip,” said Lee.

Lee added that the Sundance trip is the highlight and perfect way to finish her MFA program. Lee found the breakfast talks very informative and an encouraging extension of her Sundance experience.

“Talking to alums who have excelled in different fields clarifies many myths and outdated understandings of the film industry,” said Lee. “In a way, the Sundance trip also demonstrates the importance of workshops or classes on festival strategies and career advancement, which is what the grad program needs to improve. I hope this enriching experience can go beyond the Sundance trip and extend to the curriculum.”

The group of MFA students, staff and alumni together for a photo
Left to right, back row: Michael Bueno, Tarell Wright, Gerard Eglitis, Natalie  Peracchio, Hanadi Elyan, Charles Bruin; Middle row: Xudong Liu, John Crye, Michelle Gardner, Anna Feder, Donnie Cadman, Mehvish Ali, Yi-Chien Lee; Front row: Isabel Miranda, Yue Hua and Yanghuixiao Gao. (Photo by Mark Murphy)
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