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A Sundance Film Festival Volunteer- Athina Koumarela
by Karen Pecota

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.