A community bonfire in Park City heats up Sundance festival’s second half

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Cooper, the festival's director, lights the first-ever Sundance bonfire, a community gathering on Swede Alley, in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Park City • John Cooper is determined to leave his job as director of the Sundance Film Festival in a blaze of glory.

Cooper, who is retiring when the 2020 festival ends on Sunday, set fire to a 6-foot stack of wooden pallets in a Park City parking lot Thursday afternoon — a community bonfire that brought more than 200 festival attendees together to warm up in temperatures just below freezing.

“This is something I’ve [been] trying to do for 15 years,” Cooper said while the pallets burned.

The bonfire carried the theme of “Imagined Futures,” and the pallets were covered in writing from people who were asked to write what they imagined for their own futures. Before the bonfire was lit, Cooper and Park City Mayor Andy Beerman added their wishes for the future.

Beerman offered a global hope and a local one. “On a global level, I imagine a future where we stop focusing on our differences and things that push us apart, and [work toward] a future where we focus on our shared challenges,” Beerman said.

Locally, he noted that the festival has called Park City home for nearly 40 years. “Literally, we’ve grown up together,” he said. “A lot of people look back on those periods and say the best days are behind us. I hope … we can move forward and our best days are yet ahead.”

Cooper offered a similar wish. “I would like to have a festival that’s even better without me,” he said. “I will be here, and I want to come back next year, and see all these people here and see [the festival] even bigger and more exciting than it is this year.”

Before the fire was lit, the Jamba African Burundi Drummers, a Salt Lake City-based drum group, played to encourage people to move and stay warm. The lead actors from the romantic drama “Forever Amor,” Zainab Jah and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, read a poem together. And members of the Park City High School choir sang an a cappella version of the Latin hymn “Dominos Vobiscum.”

As Cooper lit the pallets with a flare, a group of musicians from the Ute Indian Tribe played what one of its members called a traditional “traveling song.” The flames spread across the pallets and shot high in the air. The heat could be felt well outside the safety line set up by the Park City Fire Department, which had a tanker truck and a fire hose on hand in case of an emergency.

Cooper said the bonfire is part of an effort to differentiate the festival’s second half from its celebrity-frenzied first half.

“What I’ve really wanted to start is creating this whole separate feeling for the second half of the festival,” Cooper said, adding that he wants “the kind of events people like to participate in, and maybe a little more local, too.”

One idea Cooper wasn’t able to pull off: an East Coast/West Coast snowball fight. “Maybe next year,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, Cooper started choking up as he introduced the documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor” in the Egyptian Theatre on Park City’s Main Street.

He said he got emotional in part because of the movie, a profile of the flamboyant TV astrologer Walter Mercado. While programming the festival slate last fall, Cooper said, he watched the movie and got excited at the idea of meeting Mercado. The next day, Mercado died, at the age of 87.

“I also realized it was my last time in the Egyptian,” Cooper said, adding that he hasn’t been feeling nostalgic during the festival, but “it’s starting to hit me as [the festival] tapers off.”