Cornell students explore opportunities in film at Sundance

Doctoral student Nia Whitmal has been working on documentary films with the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem since 2023. Her trip to the Sundance Film Festival with the Department of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) this January helped her see another side of film production.

“I got to meet Theda Hammel, director of 'Stress Positions,' which was at Sundance, starring John Early,” Whitmal said, adding that she and friends watched documentaries until late in the night. On another night, the group of Cornellians spent time at a local steakhouse with Cornellians working in the film industry. Sundance also gave Whitmal the chance to meet with her friend Tarek Ziad, another actor in 'Stress Positions.'

The Cornell students traveled to Sundance with Kristen Warner, associate professor in PMA, who wanted to introduce her students to all sides of the film industry. “Part of my interest as a film and TV scholar is thinking about industry — part of the work in this festival is that films are being bought and sold at the festival,” Warner said. “Park City becomes a global business hub for the film industry for a temporary time each year.” 

Since Whitmal’s doctoral research focuses on socioeconomic community issues in Harlem, she was able to view two documentaries that reference Harlem,” Soundtrack of the Coup-d’État,” which documents global politics and the impact of jazz, and “As We Speak,” which spotlights the art-making spaces in inner-cities.

The Sundance Film Festival is unique for its focus on independent films, and also because it is one of the only film festivals where directors are actually selling their films. Students, including Whitmal and Liv Licursi, ‘25, who studies theater, got an inside look at the film industry and the people who make it happen. 

“Going to Sundance as a student was a great opportunity for someone who wants to be in the industry,” Licursi said, adding that the trip piqued her interest into another side of performing arts. 

For Warner, the passion for showing students this kind of festival is all about helping them connect to the industry: “As I started to teach about Sundance, I had students who really wanted to get into the industry, but did not have a home in a place that was at a point of major contact with film, such as New York City or Los Angeles.” 

Warner’s research interests focus on labor, employment and race and representation in film, so visiting the festival allows her to see what’s trending in those areas. “Festivals are like fashion week, because they set the trends for the next one or two years,” she said.

Hyrum Edwards is a communications assistant for The College of Arts & Sciences.

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Students sit at table in restaurant under bright lights.
Kristen Warner Cornell students enjoy the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.