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SLFS Board: Sarah E. S. Sinwell and the Pursuit of Art House Cinema

headshot of Sarah Sinwell, local art house cinema expert and SLFS Board vice chair

In any non-profit organization, the Board of Directors plays a vital role in planning for funding, growth, and subsequently helping achieve their mission. At Salt Lake Film Society, our Board embodies the organization’s passion for film and art house cinema, and they are deeply committed to our mission of educating, advocating, and informing about –and through– cinema.

For local cinephile and vice-chair of the SLFS Board, Sarah E. S. Sinwell, this commitment to film and independent cinema started long before she ever heard of Salt Lake Film Society. “My family were always big film lovers growing up; I’ve been watching movies with them and going to art houses my whole life.” However, it wasn’t until college when she truly discovered her passion, not just for film, but for analyzing the art and the industry of independent cinema.

“I was studying to be a diplomat, taking political science classes and the like. In my sophomore year, I missed out on my first choice for a seminar, and the seminar I ended up taking was my first film class. When I graduated, I tried being a production assistant, made a few short films, but I soon realized that I would much rather analyze film than make it.”

Educating Through Art House Cinema Analysis

an image of Sarah Sinwell, local art house cinema expert and vice chair of SLFS board
Sinwell became a member of the SLFS Board of Directors in 2015

When she moved to Utah in 2015, Sinwell continued her cinema journey by joining the Department of Film and Media Arts at the University of Utah as an assistant professor. Now an associate professor, she has applied her devotion to art houses and film analysis through teaching, and writing books and scholarly articles. 

It didn’t take long for her art house cinema expertise and the mission of Salt Lake Film Society to align. “When I moved here, Kevin Hanson (SLFS board member and colleague at the U) immediately told me, ‘You need to meet Tori [Baker], and you need to be a part of the Film Society’, and I was invited to join [the Board] just a few months after that.”

Unsurprisingly, Sinwell’s initial interactions with Salt Lake Film Society were as a patron. “I’m a huge cinephile, I write about art houses, I write about independent films, I write about feminist and queer filmmaking, and the Broadway and the Tower are the places to go to see the best independent films in town, and the best independent films internationally, so I was pretty excited about even attending a film at the Tower/Broadway.”

For Sinwell, being a member of the SLFS Board was also an important part of her personal introduction to Utah, and the Salt Lake City film scene. “It was my first time living/moving here, so [joining the SLFS Board] was a big part of my learning about Utah, and about film culture in Utah.”

“People are seeking out the theater experience, because they’ve missed it. I was at the reopening of the Broadway in 2021, and my friends and I kept saying ‘This is the experience we have been missing’”

She was able to further supplement her studies, writings, and analysis of art houses and independent cinemas, because what better way to learn how an art house works than by being a part of one? “Being a part of the board has really taught me all about the in’s and outs of how non-profits and art houses work. I had no idea, for instance, how much a popcorn popper actually costs.” Sinwell said.

“I’ve really been involved, not just in the Film Society, but in thinking about the state of the art house at the moment when streaming is becoming more popular, and knowing this [type of] institution from the inside is invaluable to understanding the challenges that many art houses face” Sinwell continued.

Enjoying Independent Film At SLFS

The reciprocal relationship between Sinwell’s educational pursuits and her experience on the SLFS Board is an important part of her impact on the Salt Lake City film scene. But like any fan of independent film, nothing really compares to the personal enjoyment of watching an engaging and thought-provoking visual story on the big screen. For Sinwell, watching Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady On Fire at Broadway Centre Cinemas offered this type of unforgettable viewing experience.

“I saw Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019) for the first time at the Broadway. Sciamma is one of my favorite directors, and I wanted to show it to everyone. I liked it so much, I saw it again, and the second viewing was the last film I saw in a theater for two years after COVID shutdown the Broadway” Sinwell remembered.

For those who have seen it, the lasting impression of Sciamma’s critically acclaimed film would be memorable even without the subsequent lockdown that occurred due to COVID-19. But it was the theater experience, and the insights and discussions with her friends afterwards that truly cemented Sinwell’s experience as noteworthy.

“One of these [POLOF] viewings was a sneak preview I went to with some friends and colleagues, and it was so inspiring. My colleague who studies music talked to me about some really interesting things the film does with music and sound, and I used aspects of femininity and ‘gaze’ from the film in my Queer Media class that I teach.” 

Supporting the Community Role of Art House Cinema

As someone who has experienced the profound nature of the independent theater viewing experience first-hand, Sinwell is well aware of how important art houses are to their local communities, especially as COVID restrictions are lifted. “For many people, watching movies was their pandemic lockdown activity. Now, people are seeking out the theater experience, because they’ve missed it. I was at the reopening of the Broadway in 2021 when we screened Dune (2021), and my friends and I kept saying ‘This is the experience we have been missing’ you know, watching a film with others in a theater, and talking about it after.”

As an SLFS board member, Sinwell has both supported, and helped realize the larger aim of using film as a learning tool for social good. “SLFS shows unique films. We are purposefully putting these films on our screens, films that other people might not find otherwise. People are being introduced to other stories and cultures through these films.”

the cover of the book Indie cinema online, a book about art house cinema written by Sarah Sinwell
Indie Cinema Online is Sinwell’s newest book, and explores the challenges and growth of art house cinema

“Our films and cultural tours [like Czech Film Tour or FilmMéxico] let you imagine what it’s like to live in the Czech Republic, or Mexico, or live the female experience [in films like POLOF]. It’s an opportunity to explore what the future and history both hold” Sinwell added.

After stories of her introduction to loving film, writing and teaching film analysis, and how she became a vital member of the SLFS Board, there was one final piece of insight Sinwell had to offer on the age-old question: butter or no butter on your theater popcorn? “Definitely butter. But if it’s a matinee at the Broadway, I always get a slice of Pie Hole pizza and a Coke.”

Given our mission to educate, advocate, and inform about and through cinema , there are few people more suited to the task of vice-chair of the SLFS Board of Directors than Sarah E. S. Sinwell, and we are lucky to have her. 

You can read some of her scholarly articles analyzing art house cinemas and how they have handled the COVID-19 pandemic here, and here. For information about her new book Indie Cinema Online, and other published work. click here.

To see a list of our upcoming films and events, click here.
To join our Red Carpet Club, or to learn more about RCC levels, discounts, and benefits, click here.

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