This was not the Sundance experience I’m accustomed to.
I had a ticket stub in my pocket with a time of 3:15 p.m.; my phone rang at 3:14.
“Without saying anything, without bringing any attention to yourself, go inside the miners hospital. Go down into the basement and walk out the set of double-doors at the back of the building, and go into the parking lot. Stand by the dumpster, and wait for my instructions.”
Everything happened so quickly. I looked at my girlfriend — I wasn’t sure if it would be for the last time — and followed the caller’s instructions the best I could. Her phone rang right after mine, but I couldn’t wait to see what exactly she was up to.
After all, I had a bank to rob.
The Sundance Film Festival is an annual challenge for filmmakers to push boundaries in front of and behind the camera. For ten days in January, Robert Redford’s festival takes over Park City, Utah, and allows ambitious new films to capture the attentions of festival attendees and movie producers looking for the next big thing.
Aside from spawning such critical and commercial favorites such as “Precious” and “Waiting for Superman,” Sundance allows budding storytellers to take risky and innovative approaches to their projects in the New Frontier category. Billed as a convergence of film, art and new media technologies, the New Frontier installations are quirky and fun.
Taking place at the historic Miners Hospital in Park City (as well as at the Salt Lake Art Center down in the city), the New Frontier hosts many different projects. Most notable is this year’s Academy Award nominee for Best Actor James Franco’s installation, “Three’s Company: The Drama.”
However, the project that immersed me into another world, as if I were the star of a film, was UK-based Blast Theory’s project called “A Machine to See With.”
“A Machine to See With” inserts the “movie-goer” into a story where the major plot-points are put into place by an unknown voice at the other end of your cell-phone, and your own imagination fills in the rest. Playing off of cliches typically found in thriller and heist films, you find yourself following instructions and playing the role of a bank robber. You’re forced to make difficult decisions up until the point where you actually come to rob the bank — and then things go horribly wrong.
As I was guided by the automated voice, I found myself questioning everything. Could I trust the voice? And the person who just walked by who was on his cellphone, is he in on this? And, most importantly, could I really go through with it?
The installation ended just as abruptly as it began, with my character’s own storyline wrapping up with a moment of introspection as I wondered what the hell I just took part of. The voice beckoned me to be open to the world in front of me and to understand that hard choices are a part of it. And then it said goodbye, forever.
“A Machine to See With” was not a typical Sundance experience, in that it wasn’t an indie film with a heart-warming or difficult-to-swallow message. However, in that it was an exciting, adventurous and innovative exercise in storytelling, it was one of my more memorable moments spent at the festival this year.
And though each year I usually find a film or documentary or discussion that makes my time spent at the festival worthwhile, this time it was a phone call.