Filmmaker Albert Maysles discussing his short documentary The Secret of Trees with a Park City High School student during the 2013 Filmmakers in the
Filmmaker Albert Maysles discussing his short documentary The Secret of Trees with a Park City High School student during the 2013 Filmmakers in the Classroom Program. Photo by Stephen Speckman courtesy of The Sundance Institute

You could call it the ultimate high school field trip.

Last year 4,815 Utah high school students from 68 schools and organizations attended 12 free Sundance screenings. Another 2,282 Park City School District students watched films at their high school where they also had the opportunity to grill the filmmakers about their work.

According to Kara Cody, the Sundance Institute's manager of Utah Community and Student Programs, the offerings are an extension of the organization's overall mission "to connect artists and audiences."

With obvious enthusiasm she added, "Plus, we are always excited to engage the next generation of filmmakers, to see who might go on to be the next great independent filmmaker."

She may not have to wait long before being able to boast that one of the high school program's alumna is on the short list for an Oscar. Thanks in part to Sundance's proximity (the annual Film Festival commandeers Park City High School's performing arts auditorium every year) there is a burgeoning group of home-grown high school filmmakers.

Jill Orschel, a local filmmaker, Sundance alumna and founder of Park City's eight-year-old Filmmakers Showcase, has seen the effects firsthand. Her annual showcase gives local amateur filmmakers a chance to screen their short films in front of a real audience at the Jim Santy auditorium, and she estimates that about 75 percent of the entries are from high-school-age filmmakers.

She credits Sundance with broadening the scope of their subject matter. "I have been watching the kids for years now and I've really seen it change. At first they were all Quentin Tarantino wannabes and blockbuster copycats. But, through the years that Sundance has been reaching out to kids, the biggest trend I see is that they are making more personal films. They are seeing the value of their own voice. I think Sundance should be really proud of that."

Park City High School also has a popular film program that hosts an annual student film festival whose entries are surprisingly professional thanks, in part, to Sundance's student screenings and to year-round community outreach programs.

The high school screenings, though, are not limited to Park City. They also take place at Sundance venues in Salt Lake City and Ogden where students are bussed in to see films and talk to filmmakers.

According to Cody, films for the student programs are selected by a Sundance Institute team that looks not only for age-appropriate material but also subjects, "that have universal themes and that will start a discussion among students."

One of last year's selections was a good example. "Pandora's Promise" tackled the controversies surrounding the use of nuclear energy. The film focused on a group of environmentalists who had once opposed nuclear energy and now support it.

"Their teacher said, it opened up their eyes and really got students buzzing on bus ride back to school," Cody said.

She added that "Blackfish," another film that screened for students last year, challenged students to think about the issues surrounding captive killer whales "in a way they hadn't before."

Cody also pointed out that the students offer the filmmakers a fresh perspective. "It is not an industry audience. The students are very honest, very receptive and give really raw feedback."

Ultimately, the decision about whether to participate is up to teachers at the individual schools. Sometimes, teachers try to find films that dovetail with a specific class. Last year, for instance, some economics teachers chose to have students attend "Inequality for All," a documentary about the widening gap between rich and poor around the world and featuring former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Cody also noted that Sundance alerts teachers about any colorful language, or mild violence, so they can make informed decisions.

Last year, for the first time, about 415 college students, professors and administrators were also treated to a free Sundance Film Festival screening. They saw Dave Grohl's "Sound City" at the Rose Wagner Theatre in Salt Lake City.

It was so well received, Cody said Sundance is doing it again. Free tickets will be distributed by each school including the University of Utah, Utah Valley University, Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College.

The Sundance Institute student programs are underwritten by a number of generous state, federal and local sponsors including: the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, Salt Lake County's Economic Development Department, the Salt Lake County Zoo Arts and Parks (ZAP) tax, the Utah Arts Council, the Park City Community Foundation, Park City Municipal Corp., Park City Rotary Club, Summit County Recreation Arts and Parks (RAP) tax, the Promontory Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Utah High School Screening Program and Filmmakers in the Classroom 2014 selections:

  • "Cesar's Last Fast"
  • "The Internet's Own Boy: The Life of Aaron Swartz"
  • "Fed Up"
  • "Ping Pong Summer"
  • "Dinosaur 13"
  • "SEPIDEH - Reaching for the Stars"
  • "The Green Prince"
  • "Freedom Summer"
  • "Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang"
  • "Web Junkie"
  • "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"
  • "Last Days in Vietnam"

Utah Local College and University 2014 screening:

  • "To Be Takei"