Award-winning alumni make Sundance feel accessible

Twenty-one students attended the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, interacting with Elon alumni working – and gaining recognition – in the film and entertainment industries.

A group of Elon students enrolled in The Sundance Experience class traveled to Utah during Winter Term to attend the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s largest independent film festival. Accompanied by J McMerty ’00, director of the Elon in Los Angeles program, 21 students attended film screenings, interacted with alumni at wisdom sessions, and gained an up-close view of the festival.

This year’s festival premiered projects featuring two Elon alumni: Katrina Taylor ’04, who collected her first Emmy Award last fall, and Alex Hadden ’13.

Hadden was credited as an editor for “Giving Voice,” a documentary that intimately follows six students as they meticulously develop their individual performances with the hopes of embodying August Wilson’s legacy. One of America’s most notable playwrights, Wilson chronicled the African American experience through 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century.

Every year thousands of high school students from across the country gather in New York City to perform one of his monologues in a riveting competition on Broadway. “Giving Voice” was the winner of the Festival Favorite Award, finishing first in an audience vote among 128 features screened across all categories at the festival.

Taylor was credited as an editor of “Feels Good Man,” a film about indie comic character Pepe the Frog. When Pepe became an unwitting icon of hate, his creator, artist Matt Furie, fought to bring Pepe back from the darkness and navigate America’s cultural divide.

“Feels Good Man” highlighted how a character initially meant to provide joy and fun can slowly morph into something else – and maybe change again. The film was awarded the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker.

During alumni wisdom sessions organized by McMerty and Maggie Mullikin, manager of graduate and global programs, the students participated in informal conversations with several Elon graduates attending the festival. This group included Hadden, Taylor, Natasha Euliss-Uftring ’95, Laith Majali ’05, Bobby Hoppey ’09, Julia Boyd ’15, Jordan Roman ’15 and Melissa Douglas ’18.

McMerty said that meeting with alumni undoubtedly benefits the students, many of them aspiring filmmakers.

“We find both formal and informal interactions that our alumni have with students can change the trajectory of someone’s career,” McMerty said. “It’s very powerful when you meet someone who has literally sat in the same seat as you. You see their path.”

Riley Bradford ’21 explained that getting to know the alumni at Sundance left him feeling “inspired.” The cinema and television arts major added that getting a film into Sundance is difficult, but that his interactions with alumni made him understand that the goal is achievable. “Realizing that through this program was incredible,” he said.

Madison Engle ’21, also a cinema and television arts major, echoed Bradford’s sentiments. She said meeting alumni in Park City made Sundance “feel more accessible.”

“We were able to talk to people who have made it into the festival,” Engle said. “It made it less overwhelming.”