In 2020, the Sundance Film Festival was one of the last big movie-centric events to happen in person before international COVID-19 shutdowns took effect. But the show must go on, and the landmark independent film forum is back in 2021, albeit in a virtual version.
That's right: If you've always dreamed of hobnobbing at Sundance but have never made the trip, you can now purchase e-tickets and see the work of hundreds of filmmakers from around the world.
One of them is Spokane native Trish Harnetiaux, whose new film You Wouldn't Understand was selected as part of this year's Sundance shorts program. It's easily the biggest venue where the 10-minute film has played, and it's also the first time one of Harnetiaux's films has played the buzzy Park City, Utah, festival.
"It's always been a dream. And what a year to be in Sundance," Harnetiaux tells the Inlander. "It's a bittersweet opportunity for us, and clearly we're disappointed that there's no Park City this year."
But she says that the Sundance staff has been generous with their time and support, and that their enthusiasm is representative of the "pandemic pivot" that so many arts organizations have had to lean into.
"They're doubling down and trying to get exposure for everybody, and the shorts program is available for the entirety of the week," Harnetiaux says. "There'll be a lot more eyes on it. That's pretty exciting."
Born and raised in Spokane, Harnetiaux was heavily involved in the local theater scene from a young age; her father, Bryan Harnetiaux, has been the playwright-in-residence at the Spokane Civic Theatre since 1982. After attending the University of Washington and studying theater and playwriting, she moved to New York, where she still resides.
Harnetiaux has had a number of plays staged over the years, but it was around 2012 when she started making short films with her husband Jacob A. Ware and their friend Anthony Arkin (son of Alan). Under the moniker Steel Drum in Space, the trio has produced a number of quirky, offbeat shorts, and Harnetiaux says You Wouldn't Understand is almost an apotheosis of all the weirdness of their previous films.
It's hard to describe the film without giving too much away, but it begins with a man (Arkin) having a solo picnic in the middle of an empty field on a sunny day. Enter a stranger in a white suit (Ware), seemingly appearing out of nowhere, who asks to borrow some horseradish before devolving into a torrent of nonsense terms. From there, it's a surreal descent into absurdity that seems to involve a time loop and clones from the future — or maybe the past.
"The initial idea was 'let's tell a story that you think you know, and then let's see how we can kind of peel it back and take it in an unexpected way,'" Harnetiaux says. "We talked a lot about influences, and we wanted to have this strange tension and almost Hitchcock-like strangeness to this world, but also infuse it with humor and this sort of Monty Python vibe."
With its small cast and spacious outdoor locale, you might think Understand was produced during the pandemic, but it was actually shot in New Jersey shortly before lockdowns took effect. Since it has come out in the midst of the pandemic, Harnetiaux and her collaborators haven't been able to see the movie with an actual audience, although it has played several virtual film festivals since the summer.
That's a bummer for comic filmmakers, who can easily base the effectiveness of their work on what an audience does and doesn't respond to, but Harnetiaux hopes the film still delivers a little bit of levity — and a whole lot of weirdness — in an otherwise dark time.
"It's maybe not for everybody, and it might go off the rails for somebody. Hopefully people will enjoy the journey of it," she says. "It also lends itself to multiple viewings, and you can discover something new every time with this one. ... I hope that people can escape into it and have fun with it. Because that's why we made it, and that's how we made it." ♦