I was asked by Wednesday Journal to write about my recent experiences at the Sundance Film Festival. I am not only the TV/film teacher at OPRF High School, but also the series producer on Steve James’ documentary miniseries America to Me. After thinking about it, I decided that I would rather hear about the Sundance experience from three of the students we featured in the series, and I thought the community would as well. 

I attended the festival from Thursday, Jan. 18 to Tuesday, Jan. 23. Some of the subjects came a little later, but were there for the premiere on Monday, Jan. 22. Episodes 1-3 played on Jan. 22. Episodes 4-5 played on Jan. 23. It also played a couple of times later in the festival.

We wanted to have some of the student subjects at the premiere. Their stories are featured in episodes 1-5. Often at Sundance, the talent is there, whether movie stars or subjects in a documentary.  

America to Me does not have a broadcast date as of yet.

John Condne 

“Sundance was one of the best experiences of my life. Never did I think the documentary would allow me to have these opportunities. Watching myself on a giant movie screen, being able to meet the crew and almost re-experience my senior year was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Park City was a beautiful town; I had never been to that side of the country before. The funny thing about being at Sundance was people knew who I was before I met them. Kinda felt like being a celebrity over the weekend. I want to go back again next year if I have the opportunity.” 

Kendale McCoy

“My Sundance experience was pretty surreal and beyond anything I imagined. First off, it was great to meet Kendale, Jada and [Jessica] Stovall in person because a lot of the subjects didn’t really know each other when filming was going on. When my family and I got to Park City, we were immediately immersed in the world of Sundance. Right after getting settled, we went to our first of many photo shoots where I was nervous at first, but then I soon started to feel like we really belonged here and our film was important for the festival. It was really cool that celebrities were always just around the corner and that Kendale, Jada and I got to actually sit down and talk with Jon Hamm about America To Me.

I was able to meet and talk to a lot of the editors, sound people and producers who worked on the film. It was kind of crazy meeting the crew who had been looking at my footage for the past two years and felt like they knew me, but I had never met them.

Seeing the first five episodes of America To Me was an absolutely amazing experience. At the premiere, seeing a full audience of 500 people waiting to see the film was terrifying at first. I couldn’t look back in the theater. But when the film started, I was able to calm down and watch the incredible work of all of the crew come to the screen through the amazing stories that were told. It was incredible to see how my story was woven in with the other subjects even though we were all different and most of us didn’t know each other. Seeing my freshman self and my family on the big screen really blew my mind! It was really interesting to see how the audience sympathized and identified with my story, and I was happy that at least they related to my teenage angst. Sundance was an experience I will never forget, and I am excited for what’s to come in the future.” 

Grant Lee

“Attending the 2018 Sundance Film Fest is by far one of my best experiences as an aspiring filmmaker. Watching America To Me really took me back to high school. It felt like it was just yesterday (considering it was the 2015-16 school year). It was a little weird at first watching myself on screen. I say that because like all the other subjects, it was a time where I was still growing into myself. The series is very multidimensional! I think when many people in the Oak Park community and America see America To Me, they will see themselves reflected, especially those who are often left out of the conversation. What I really liked about the series is that it’s not just narratives of current students but also past students of OPRF and the voices of staff; that’s often overlooked in my opinion. America To Me holds up a mirror to the issues of race and equity within the OPRF school system but also within the American educational system. This documentary series is going to spark a lot of dialogue!” 

Jada Buford

Steve James, director of America to Me,and a longtime Oak Park resident himself, says, “We were thrilled that Jada, Grant, and Kendale and family members could attend the festival and participate in the Q&A’s we had at the screenings. All three of them exemplify why we chose to make the heart of the series about the experiences of a diverse group of kids across a single school year. Young people like them — along with many others in our series — give me tremendous hope for the future when it comes to issues of race and education.”

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