I met Athina Koumarela at a screenwriters reunion during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. I had become acquainted with Athina during the summer of 2015. We both had been chosen to participate in a pilot online screenwriters course offered by the Sundance Institute. After the reunion, held at the Park City Museum, several of us hung around for awhile and talked. This was the first time any of us had met in person after our summer long writing experience. I had a chance to ask lots of questions of my fellow students and listen to many responses to why they took the course, their impressions, and what they are doing now.
Athina's story as a local, her festival volunteerism and why she is drawn to the world of film stood out to me. Her eyes brightened, she smiled, she laughed and her countenance radiated a passion when she began to tell her story:
Karen Pecota (KP): You experienced the early days of Independent films being promoted in Park City. What do you recall about those early days of the Sundance Film Festival?
Athina Koumarela (AK): My earliest recollection of the film festival was probably in the early 80’s, and I don’t remember it being called Sundance. At the time, Park City's Main Street was not scattered with people dressed in the usual early ski bum outfits. Theses individuals hanging outside of the main street establishments were passing out a-quarter or a-half size sheets of informational flyers describing a film they made. They were begging the passers-by to come in to Main Street's Egyptian Theater and view their film. The entrance fee was the beer you drank while sitting at the bar viewing a short documentary. I don’t recall any “wow” moments after any of those early viewings. There might have been some longer movies but I never saw them nor knew about them.
I was drawn to the music that accompanied the festival. I was able to walk off the street and down the stairs into a bar to see my favorite performers without a ticket. Music continues to be a favorite part of the Festival even today with free venues still available.
KP: How has the Festival changed?
AK: If I knew then what it would be like in 2016, maybe I would have paid more attention and appreciated its humble beginnings. My imagination could have never perceived the amount of people it now attracts, the prestige that is awarded to participating filmmakers around the world, and the multi-million dollar wheelin’ and dealin’ that surrounds it.
Hmmmm. Is the initial mission that Robert Redford set out with the festival the same today? Mr. Redford once said in an interview that he was able to afford making the films he wanted to in the 70s and 80s by making the larger studio films. Perhaps like Mr. Redford's early professional career, the Festival is a means to an end. It has provided artists a venue for their ideas and the opportunity for these artists to develop their skills at the Sundance Institute’s lab programs. I do not know how the Institute benefits financially from the Festival, but the two work hand-in-hand through out the year to build on Mr. Redford's initial mission: to showcase independent filmmakers and their projects.
Although the Festival has grown to include what I consider “mainstream” (studio type) films, I can still see a strong link from Redford's original mission. The “Next” category of the Festival is specifically created to recognize and give awards to creative low budget films. The historical beginnings with the film artists that started The Slamdance Film Festival annually attract hundreds of talented filmmakers that have successfully showcased their films during the Sundance Festival week. ThIs is a story in and of itself. This festival happens in Park City always during the Sundance Film Festival dates. Slamdance celebrated it's twenty year anniversary in January 2016.
As for me, the documentaries have continued to be the best example of the Sundance Institute and Film Festival mission. They continue to tell the stories that are seldom told by the “mainstream” media. When I am moved by a documentary that I’ve seen at Sundance, I am thrilled if it has been bought and hopefully distributed so millions can have the opportunity to see it if they were not lucky enough to be at the festival.
KP: How long have you been a volunteer at Sundance Film Festival?
AK: I began volunteering part-time at the Sundance Screening Theater at the Sundance Resort in 2010 and 2011 after a friend encouraged me to volunteer with her. In 2013 to 2016 I became a full-time volunteer selling Sundance Merchandise at the MARC theater in Park City (The MERC at the MARC). Volunteering full-time for ten days is crazy. My home routine goes to Hell. All I think about is how and which movies I can squeeze in before or after my shift, along with as much music venues as I can find to attend. The amazing part of volunteering is seeing the same people you've worked with from all over the world come together once again.
KP: What were your impressions of the screenwriting pilot course we took last summer?
AK: I received an email about the course and frankly thought why are they sending this to me. I swear I never even replied to the email, and admit only thinking about it. Next thing I realize is I’m signed up. After reading everyone’s bios, I felt very intimidated by the expertise and experience of the other people taking the course. Finally, a teacher with no writing background bravely wrote her bio and I thought okay there’s one person with my similar background. I’ll try it.
I have watched films all my life but never really thought about how the stories I love came to life. The course gave me an appreciation of the thought process of making a screenplay with an introduction to the writers who do this for a living. I was inspired by each writer’s discipline for their art and how each had their own individual way of starting and completing the task.
The difficult part of the course, besides not being a writer myself, was creating a space and devoting myself to write and complete the assignments. The rewarding part was I actually gave thoughtful attention to the assigned tasks and the story I wanted to tell. The disappointing part was that I never completed the screenplay I envisioned in the course.
I would have liked to collaborate with people in the process. Our group selection was intended to help that important part, but because everyone was on different schedules it was difficult to be an active part of the group. Therefore, I was very curious to meet up at the 2016 reunion and see some people that went through the course.
I was especially happy to meet you, Karen, and this follow-up interview, brings me back to the Sundance experience and the pilot course. Thank you!
KP: Thank you for your kind words Athina. I am also happy we met and I thank you for taking the time to share a portion of your film-loving journey. Your first encounter with film comes from childhood. What was that like?
AK: My father worked at a bar in downtown Salt Lake City (SLC) and as a very young child every Sunday after church, I would walk over to his bar. My father gave me money to go to the movies until he was off work. There were at least four movie theaters within walking distance of his bar. He was off work around 6:00 PM, so that gave me time enough to see three movies (double features in those days). That equals about 700 movies I watched between age five and ten years old. I tend to think I was primed at an early age to see more complex films. When I was a student at the University of Utah I found out about independent films shown downtown on weekends very close to my Dad’s bar. The Sundance film festival story began to unfold shortly thereafter.
Utah Film Series offers residents in this area an opportunity to see a wide variety of films featured at the Festival. They are shown throughout the year in SLC, Park City and various venues throughout the state.
I’d love to craft a story into a screenplay. I now have some tools to work with by going through just a small part of the process in the screenwriting course. I am more aware of and admire the writers who can produce material for film. It's not easy. I am in awe of a well-written script and all the components used to complete a film project. Could I do it? My goal is to try one day.