Updated Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 07:01 AM
PARK CITY, Utah — Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol have been to a few film festivals, but rarely have they seen audiences and organizers as passionately supportive of independent film as the ones they encountered at the Sundance Film Festival.
The two are partners in Lucid, a Seattle studio that makes both documentary and commercial films. They co-directed “The Roper,” a documentary short about an African-American calf roper in Louisiana who hopes someday to compete in the National Finals Rodeo. (Watch it at lucidinc.com.) It was one of a handful of movies with Seattle connections that drew attention at this year’s massive indie-film festival in Park City, which came to a close a week ago.
“There have been African-American cowboys for a while, and not just in ‘Blazing Saddles,’ ” Sandilands said during a break from screenings, panel discussions and socializing with other filmmakers. They originally set out to film trail riding, a kind of group-horseback riding popular in parts of the South. When they met Kendrick Domingue, on his way home from competing in a local rodeo, they knew they had their central subject.
The movie gives audiences a glimpse into a hip-hop-meets-horses culture that many people never see. “We love things that are outside the mainstream. We like playing with the idea of the unfamiliar and finding common ground,” Sandilands said.
McNicol and Sandilands are considering expanding Domingue’s story into a full-length film. Until then, they’re working on the project that has taken up much of the last year, a documentary feature about the colorful denizens of a town called Uncertain, Texas.
Also at the festival, before the premiere of her latest feature, “Touchy Feely,” Seattle-based writer/director Lynn Shelton stood at the podium in the event’s largest theater and said, “I just want to say ‘Thank you’ to Sundance, so much, for giving me my career.”
Shelton, returning with her third Sundance feature in four years, competed in the prestigious U.S. dramatic-competition category. For the first time, half the category’s directors were women.
“Touchy Feely” (about a massage therapist who suddenly has an aversion to touching people) is set in Seattle, and locals will recognize expansive scene-setting shots of neighborhoods — not to mention one of rush-hour traffic.
“This is my fifth film that I’ve shot in Washington state, and it’s a great place to shoot,” Shelton said during the Q&A, to applause from the many Seattle-based crew members in the audience.
During that same session, a viewer praised the acting of Tomo Nakayama, a Seattle musician in his first acting role. After the premiere, he mused on the experience: “It was weird at first but then I just sort of forgot it was me because I was caught up in the film.”
“This Is Martin Bonner,” starring Seattle actor Paul Eenhoorn, won the Best of NEXT Award for the best of the festival’s low-budget films. The character-driven movie’s success was based largely on the performances of Eenhoorn and his co-star, Richmond Arquette.
IndieWire called Eenhoorn an “unexpected breakout,” and a Variety review called his performance “revelatory.”
“If the audience connected to my movie at all, it was because of these amazing performances,” director Chad Hartigan said in his acceptance speech at the award ceremony.
“Martin Bonner” follows a man who recently got out of prison (Arquette) and the mentor (Eenhoorn) who gently tries to help him get his life back on track. Hartigan said his goal was to portray the kind of characters he wasn’t seeing in mainstream films: everyday people with rich inner lives.
“When you first start writing it, all you hope for is that it’s something that gets made. Then you hope it becomes something good, or at least 75 or 80 percent of what you want it to be, and then you hope people get a chance to see it,” Hartigan said. “In your wildest dreams, people get to see it at Sundance.”
The festival’s first success story was former Seattle resident Calvin Lee Reeder, a shock-horror specialist who describes himself as the “walkout king of Sundance” because his films turn off some viewers every year. Anchor Bay bought distribution rights to his movie “The Rambler” on the first day of the festival.
Another Washington state-related film was garnering praise up Park City’s Main Street, at the Slamdance Film Festival: “My Name Is Faith,” about a Seattle-area family dealing with an adopted daughter’s severe behavior issues resulting from early childhood trauma. The girl’s mother, Tif Sudela-Junker, acted as a producer and one of the directors of the film, which won that festival’s Feature Documentary Audience Award.
After the festival ended on Jan. 27, Shelton headed to Chicago for a “Sundance Film Festival USA” screening on Thursday in Chicago.
“The Roper,” about an African-American calf roper in Louisiana, is the product of Seattle studio Lucid.