DOC SPOTLIGHT: Utah Film Center’s 15th Anniversary

Written By Diana Whitten

The Utah Film Center celebrated its 15th anniversary last week with a gala on the courtyard of the Leonardo, al fresco sunset dinner, a live auction, and jazzy music by the Gold Standard Band.  The evening was to honor the center’s co-founders Geralyn Dreyfous, Kathryn Toll, and Nicole Guillemet, and to toast to a decade and a half of engaging and inspiring Salt Lake audiences with film.

It seems fitting to turn the Doc Spotlight on the Film Center at this moment, and reflect on the visionary local enterprise that grew large alongside the documentary zeitgeist, championing doc film over an era when the genre came into its own.

The genesis of the Film Center was at Sundance, 2001 – at a time when documentary was hovering shyly in the fringe, about to be discovered.  Geralyn and Nicole were relatively new to the documentary space, and working with the festival’s House of Docs initiative to bring filmmakers from around the world to Sundance. Their work caught the eye of early supporters Lon Watson of the George S and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation and Susan Swartz, who together offered a substantial donation to expand the initiative into a year-round program. Various stars aligned to broaden the concept from a Sundance program to an independent venture, and Geralyn – hands already full with her first film and second child – found herself at the helm.

The initial idea was simple: curate and exhibit thought-provoking, relevant documentary film for Salt Lake audiences. It was a win-win, as Geralyn describes in interview, “Utah audiences had grown up with Sundance in their backyard, and had developed a taste for sophisticated cinema.  Filmmakers were hungry for exhibition and audience, and the community here was hungry for cinema.”

Geralyn quickly partnered with Kathryn Toll, who at the time was new to Utah and who, in her words, had “spent – or rather misspent – [her] life in the movie business.” Like any start-up worth its’ salt, the team quickly set up shop in their cars and local coffee shops, and began designing what Katherine lovingly describes as a “freewheeling operation with no rules” – one that nevertheless within the first year had screened an impressive 56 films. By 2002, they had moved into their first legit office, in the newly constructed SLC library, a vibrant downtown hub Geralyn recalls as “a wonderful place to incubate.”

During her toast to the Center at last week’s gala, Geralyn shared a memory from these early days, of accompanying her young son Jake to get his first library card, and his reasonable analysis of the library’s mission: “so the books are free? That is not a good business model, Mom.” Cost-effectiveness aside, the Film Center embraced a similarly democratic mission of extending public access to art and culture. From the get-go the screenings were free to the public – as are 86% of the programs the Film Center currently offers.

The goal was not only to connect audiences with cutting edge social documentary, but to involve them. As Geralyn describes, “It was very clear from the beginning that we had hit a nerve in the community; people were really hungry to come together communally, and for this idea of cross pollination.” The team built up audiences via online engagement; booked films that tackled tough social issues, and then partnered the screenings with Salt Lake organizations to demonstrate a local connection to the issues in the films. Geralyn recalls, “It was exciting to pack houses, exciting to have partnerships, and people were so appreciative to be given a chance to be part of the platform – Planned Parenthood, United Way, the YWCA. We were always looking to shine a spotlight on the unsung heroes in our community and how they connected to the programming of the film. That seemed like our secret sauce, and I felt that was the future of exhibition.” 

One such partnership was with the Utah Price Center, which led to the development of the Damn These Heels festival, currently gearing up for its 15th year.  For the festival, the Center sought films that would help normalize LGBTQ relationships for straight people and families. Geralyn describes, “telling these stories of love and friendships was a way to help people not be afraid of the LGBTQ love story.” It remains the only LGBTQ film festival in Utah.

Parallel to the growth of the Film Center, the doc world has grown in stature and influence to become a thought-leader of our time.  When considering the future of the center she co-founded, Geralyn has an eye toward artistic innovations in documentary, like VR and other experimental interactive exhibition, but also a focus on effectively respecting the responsibility that a curator of nonfiction now carries.  She says of curating, “You have to be thinking ahead and really see some of the emerging issues that the community may need to think out loud together about.”  Like all conscientious nonfiction media makers, those in the doc world find themselves at a necessary crossroads of introspection, given the current political climate. Geralyn sees the Film Center as having a role in this: “the future is really scary for media literacy, and we have to spend a lot more time helping consumers understand the media they are consuming – whether it’s over the internet, news or films, because there will be more and more technology that allows people to manipulate the truth. I feel that the Film Center needs to be right at the center helping to educate audiences.” In a disorientating time when war is peace, ignorance is strength, and fake news buys summer homes, doc filmmakers – often embedded for years in their subjects – have the opportunity to be guardians of accountable media.  Media gatekeepers with ideologies like the Film Center ensure their work is enabled and seen.

Three offices and one devastating fire later, the staff of the Film Center has grown to 17 people. Since 2002, they have presented over 2000 free film screenings in multiple venues across the city and state, working with 94 community partners, and hundreds of filmmakers – 64 visiting artists and local guests participated in 2016 alone.  Guests from past years include luminaries like Albert Maysles, Frederick Wiseman, Alice Walker, Lucy Walker, Rory Kennedy, Steve James, and Stanley Nelson, and the staff are currently working on cataloguing the Q&As to post a selection of them online over the coming year.

Their mission has expanded into three pillars: the Curated Film described above, Media Education, and Artist Support; with their education department reaching close to 20 thousand students and 450 teachers trained to date; and fiscal sponsorship extended to over 100 films, 4 of which garnered Academy Award nominations. “We’ve strived to stay true to the vision of our founders by continuing to present films that illuminate the human condition and the times we live in, as well as pushing the artistic boundaries of non-fiction film storytelling,” says Patrick Hubley the Film Center’s Director of Programming since 2009. “Our curated film programs have expanded to include our Tumbleweeds Film Festival to introduce young audiences to international and independent films including documentaries, and presenting films in 5 other cities in Utah. We’re excited about the future and are continuing to look at how we can expand our reach to show more films and exploring opportunities to bring our programming to new communities.”

Moreover, as the Film Center both brings art and artists to Utah, it reciprocally helps showcase Utah to the world at large.  Says Geralyn: “I really love challenging the stereotypes that outside artists have about screening a film in Utah. Filmmakers come to Utah and see how sophisticated and appreciative audiences are, and also how full they are! That means a lot to a filmmaker, when they come, and people show up.”

Speaking as a filmmaker whose first experience with the Beehive State, just barely three years ago, was the screening of my documentary at the Utah Film Center, I can attest to this positive filmmaker experience.  Since that evening, I’ve traded the New York City sidewalks for Salt Lake’s mountains, and I’m part of that local Salt Lake audience. And so, as is commonly heard around the Film Center offices, see you at the movies!

Contributing writer, Diana Whitten, writes, makes art, and directs film.