Ouachita grant allows students to experience Sundance Film Festival firsthand

Two years ago, Rebecca Jones, assistant professor of communications at Ouachita Baptist University, attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as part of her doctoral work. Her class also participated in the Windrider Forum at Sundance, a gathering that brings together students and filmmakers to discuss the relationship between faith and film.

“Overwhelmed by the significance of the experience in my life,” Jones said, “I left Utah with the hope of one day returning with Ouachita students.” Two weeks ago, that goal became reality.

Looking back almost two years to the summer of 2012, Ouachita implemented a new strategic grant program to encourage creative educational efforts in the university community. Seeing this as the ideal opportunity to help fund an OBU at Sundance class, Jones teamed up with Dr. Doug Sonheim, chair of the department of English and modern foreign languages, to prepare a grant proposal. Later that year, they were awarded a three-year grant for the project.

After a year of planning logistics, recruiting students and making plans for the course, the inaugural OBU at Sundance class descended on Park City from Jan. 20. to Jan. 25. Along with Jones; her husband, Jason; and Dr. Sonheim; and his wife, Dr. Amy Sonheim, professor of English, the group included eight Ouachita students ranging in majors from mass communications to Christian studies to computer science and business. Ouachita President Rex Horne and his wife Becky also joined the group for part of the festival.

Once in Utah, each student had the opportunity to see 10 films. These independent movies, much different than your average Hollywood flick, included dramatic narratives, world-class documentaries and some comedies.

Reflecting on the experience, Dr. Horne said, “I think as Christians, who desire to impact culture, this class and the festival help one see what this culture perceives to be important.”

Dr. Doug Sonheim added, “Since film is such an important part of our culture and something we consume on a regular basis, it’s beneficial for Christians to be familiar with it on a deeper level.”

In addition to viewing the films, the group participated in the Windrider Forum each morning. The forum, led by Christian filmmakers and scholars from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pepperdine University and Biola University, challenged the more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students in attendance to think about how faith and film connect.

“There are some really significant stories told through film that can impact us emotionally and spiritually,” Jones noted, “and we are seeking to better understand that through this class. Some of our students have an interest in telling those types of stories, so we want to encourage them in that.”

At Windrider, the students also had the opportunity to interact with directors of Sundance films that they saw during the week. “It’s hard to put into words how incredible the experience at Sundance and Windrider was,” said Sophie Demuth, a junior Christian studies and speech communications major from Rockwall, Texas. “This week has shown me both the power of film and how God is present in movies. It will impact how I engage with and talk to other people about these aspects of our culture.”

“We have so much gratitude to the Windrider Forum for welcoming us to be a part of their group,” Jones added. “I’m thankful for the investment that they are making in young Christian filmmakers and students.”

This year was especially significant because it was the 10th anniversary of the Windrider Forum. One highlight of this milestone was a special appearance by successful Christian television producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank and The Bible Series) and a private screening of his upcoming movie, Son of God, which comes to theatres across the nation on Feb. 28.

Throughout the semester at Ouachita, the students will continue to meet once a week to discuss their experience and learn more about film criticism and film techniques. “When we wrote the grant for the class, we wanted it to be more than just the Sundance experience because we wanted to allow some time for that experience to unfold in our students’ lives,” Jones explained.

“I think it’s important for Christians to understand creative processes and why we as human beings make stuff – particularly works of art and especially stories, which we have an obsession with,” said Dr. Sonheim. “The question ‘Why do we tell stories?’ is really a theological question that we will be discussing and unpacking over the course of the semester.”

As part of the course, the students will also create a short film that tells the story of their experience that will be presented at a Scholars Day panel on April 23. “This gives them the chance to gain valuable academic experience in addition to the fun and exciting week that they got to be a part of,” said Jones.

Dr. Horne noted he hopes that as a result of this course “some students and faculty will be involved in not only presenting the questions of society, but also help in addressing troublesome issues they are presented with.”

For more information about the OBU at Sundance course, contact Rebecca Jones at jonesr@obu.edu or (870) 245-5396 or Dr. Doug Sonheim sonheimd@obu.edu or (870) 245-5554.