Senior Programmer Charlie Sextro on the hopes and joys of Sundance Film Festival: 'Everyone on our team has...'

Published on Jan 19, 2023 07:23 AM IST

Ahead of the Sundance Film Festival that will take place from January 19- 29, Senior Programmer Charlie Sextro talks to us about the approach in the selection of films and the many joys in the process.

Charlie Sextro speaks with Hindustan Times.
Charlie Sextro speaks with Hindustan Times.
BySantanu Das

Ahead of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Senior Programmer Charlie Sextro sat down for a conversation with Hindustan Times, where he reflected on the festival's "first ever" hybrid model, the joys of watching movies as part of the selection team, and some of the trends that were discernible in this year's films.

Charlie started working with the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 as the assistant to the Director of Programming, and has programed feature-length films for the past six years. He also led programming of film, music and comedy at Sundance NEXT Fest. Prior to Sundance, Charlie worked in publicity at Entertainment Tonight, marketing at Tartan Films U.S.A, acquisitions at Paramount Vantage and his mom’s picture frame gallery.

Heading into the Fest this year in a post-Covid age, what were your learnings from doing a hybrid model of the festival?

This will be our first ever fully realized hybrid festival. The festival has been almost entirely online for the past 2 years, so this year will bring all the learnings. One big lesson from the past few years is to stagger the start of the in-person festival from the online festival, so all films will premiere in Park City by Monday 1/23 and won’t be available to public online audiences until Tuesday 1/24. From an operational standpoint, it helps us put our full attention on our in-person premiere screenings and then move our attention to online screenings instead of all that work happening concurrently. We’ve also simplified the online experience so all virtual screenings are on-demand available over a multi-day period.

What were some of the parameters in the selection process this year for the Sundance Film Festival?

We do not put any parameters around our selection process beyond a total number of film slots and the sections of the festival. Beyond that, we watch all the movies, discuss contenders as a group and then see where the programming team’s passion is at the end of the process. Everyone on our team has wildly different tastes and an equal say, so we keep talking and talking and talking until we agree on the perfect final program.

Tell us about some of the joys in your role as part of the Sundance Programming team in the current year?

First and foremost, the joy is watching great cinema from across the world. Our love of watching, discussing and sharing movies brought us into this line of work, and discovering new films and filmmakers will always be the most exciting part of the job.

I also find joy in our programming meetings. During the programming season, our group gets together for many hours once a week to discuss film contenders. We discuss one film at a time, each programmer sharing their insightful thoughts, and it's a profound experience. We laugh (a lot) and cry (occasionally), and it’s always an enriching conversation.

I’m joyful that we’ll be back screening films in Park City and Salt Lake City for the first time in three years. There is an incredible community that comes together for the festival from artists to audiences to volunteers and staff, and I can not wait to be back amongst everyone.

Do you think that there were some topical trends in the films that were submitted to the festival? If yes, what were they?

We have two feature films and a short film covering the war in Ukraine through different perspectives. Iron Butterflies looks at a precursor to the war by exploring the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 over Ukraine. 20 Days in Mariupol follows journalists and citizens stuck in the middle of a conflict zone. And the short film Liturgy of Anti-tank Obstacles documents sculptors who are repurposing their artistic skills toward the country's defense efforts.

Sundance is considered to be the launchpad for some of the best documentary and non-fiction voices of the year. Are there any pressures that contribute to the process of selection for the festival?

The biggest pressure we feel is that there are always so many strong documentaries to consider for relatively few slots, which makes final decisions tough. We talk a lot as a team to make sure we are making the right choices when selecting the final program. Every year we have to pass on many good films. That is an unfortunate part of the job. You can’t let outside pressures invade the programming process because it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Our audience comes because they believe in the curatorial voice of the festival, so that’s what we follow.

Moving forward, what are some of your hopes for the Sundance Film Festival in the upcoming years?

The Festival is a part of the nonprofit Sundance Institute and as such the driving force of our shared mission is to contribute to the sustainability of independent art and the careers of the artists behind it--when the ecosystem grows healthier, filmmakers benefit and audiences do too. We're one of multiple platforms the organization puts storytellers on to achieve this goal, and going forward we intend to continue being a Festival that supports diverse voices in the same way the Institute's year-round work (with labs, grants, and other artist development initiatives) does.

The 2023 Festival will take place January 19–29, 2023, in person in Park City, Salt Lake City, and the Sundance Resort, along with a selection of films available online across the country January 24–29, 2023.

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