Slamdance Returns With First In-Person Unstoppable Showcase

With fingers tightly crossed, the Slamdance Film Festival plans a return to in-person screenings Jan. 20 29 in Utah, but its organizers have not forgotten the lessons they learned during two years of pandemic pivots.

“Something that’s become abundantly clear to us that’s important for the survival of independent film is accessibility,” festival producer Michael Morin tells Variety. “We’ve been able to do a successful online version of our festival for the last two years. It really made us reconsider what kind of program we wanted to put on when we did come back in person.”

“For me, the key word here would be diversification,” says festival manager Lily Yasuda. Where a hybrid of in-person and online programming was a logistical necessity during COVID, its success in facilitating attendance underscored the need for the festival to broaden its access to individuals, some without the resources and others the physical ability, to participate in the experience.

“Our role as an organization is helping provide a platform for these really DIY filmmakers, but it’s increasingly difficult for filmmakers to get real eyes on the stuff that they’re making,” Yasuda says. “What we do is help curate a platform for filmmakers to meet each other, connect with press and lift up these projects and give them more of a stage to present the amazing stuff they’re doing.”

The cornerstone of this approach is Slamdance’s Unstoppable program, entering its third year. Focusing on stories from and about individuals with disabilities, the program will enjoy its first brick and mortar location, provided by the University of Utah, in addition to a full slate offered on the festival’s online portal.

“With everything being virtual, [2022] had become a historical year in the amount of registered filmmakers and people that came out to the festival,” says Juliet Romeo, founder, co-captain and programmer for Unstoppable. “But if the rest of the world wanted to be like, OK, now the pandemic is over, where would that leave all those people, including myself, where now things are not accessible to us?”

“So whether it’s financially, whether it’s because of their disability or access, now they can attend and they can be included with the virtual aspect,” Romeo says.

Paired with this unprecedented access for attendees is a slate of programming that not only crosses traditional categories, but demolishes them. “What excites me about this year’s lineup is increased crossgenre pollination,” Yasuda says. “We have these kind of pre-laid out boxes of this is a narrative, or this is a doc, and seeing films that really transcend those boundaries.”

Included in this cornucopia of options is Moby’s “Punk Rock Vegan Movie” and writer-director Dmitri Coats’ “Free LSD,” an opening-and-closing night pairing that particularly thrills Morin, who calls himself “a punk at heart.” Directors Mark Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller will also premiere “Downwind,” about the real-life Nevada testing site for 928 nuclear weapons, while Elsbeth Fraanje’s “Sexual Healing” offers a candid and poignant look at intimacy from the point of view of a 53-year-old woman who’s spastic from birth.

As their spotlight widens to include more stories from more people than ever — arriving at a slate curated by 200 programmers from 7,600 submissions, more than 1,500 of which were feature films — the Slamdance team remains cautiously optimistic for what could be a big year for the festival.

“Fingers crossed, we will very much be in person in January, but we’re going to have a strong virtual presentation as well,” says Yasuda. “Now having a few years of channel experience under our belts, I think everyone feels a little bit more confident about that.”

“We want audiences everywhere to feel like this is accessible, affordable, and still exciting,” she says. “We just want everyone to feel like they’re included.”

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