How Sundance’s rapidly expanding international programming is changing the world, one film at a time
Photography: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
In the early years of the Sundance Film Festival, founded in 1981 by actor Robert Redford, the festival showcased American stories by American independent filmmakers. “But Bob saw a broader vision from the beginning,” says Michelle Satter, director of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program. “For him, it was always about cultural exchange. Film was a great opportunity to create a dialogue about a complicated world.” More than 30 years later, a mix of languages fills the streets of Park City each January, as global audiences gather at the festival to experience international films that tell stories of worldwide significance.
The institute’s international outreach began in Latin America in 1988, when Satter attended the Havana Film Festival and forged connections with the region’s film industry. Redford’s relationship with Gabriel García Márquez brought the famed Colombian writer and a group of films based on his work to the 1989 festival. The bubbling of talent in Mexico inspired Sundance to host one of its Screenwriters Labs there in 1991, and the Sundance Institute also expanded to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, adapting its lab model to the needs of each culture.
Labs with partners in the UK and Central Europe followed later in the 1990s, and in conjunction with the Japanese film industry, the institute established the Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker Award to support emerging independent filmmakers around the globe. Several festival categories in the 1990s featured Latin, Asian, and European films, leading to the creation of a World Cinema category in 1996, which was later split into Documentary and Dramatic categories included in juried competition in 2005.
The Feature Film Program continues to work with the next generation of filmmakers, wherever they may live. “There are exciting new voices in parts of the world where there is little opportunity and a sense of urgency about the stories needing to be told,” Satter says. Sundance Labs have been held in Israel, India, Turkey, and Jordan—places where filmmakers are in need and sustainable partnerships can be built.
One such partnership, the Rawi Screenwriters Lab run in conjunction with the Royal Jordanian Film Commission, invites filmmakers from the region to develop their works under the guidance of seasoned creative advisors. The five-day lab, now in its seventh year, is held at an eco-lodge in the desert of southern Jordan. Screenings, powered by a generator, occur on a rooftop under the stars, and scripts are read by the light of candles set into walls. Saudi filmmaker Faiza Saleh Ambah says of the camaraderie, “I think I may have found my lost tribe.” Every year, films from the Jordan lab make their way to the festival in Park City.
Cara Mertes, an award-winning filmmaker who directs Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, has also turned her program into a major global resource. The institute’s Documentary Fund now provides $1 million to $2 million a year in grants to filmmakers worldwide for projects involving human rights, social justice, civil liberties, the environment, and other contemporary issues that motivate change. Last spring, 29 films received grants out of 650 applications from 80 countries. The films documented such topics as the rise of the first Islam-inspired superheroes, the journey of a school bus from the US to Guatemala, and the experiences of a human rights lawyer fighting for justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yet another Sundance initiative with international reach is the Native American and Indigenous Program, whose director, Bird Runningwater, says the institute has involved and supported native filmmakers since its beginning. Runningwater scouts worldwide (including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) for indigenous artists with films worthy of institute support. “Our first steps in internationalizing the Native Program have inspired a native platform for all indigenous work,” he says. He takes delight in bringing the finished films to young native audiences. “The idea that you can make a film and be a filmmaker is not in their immediate grasp,” he says.
If anything, Sundance’s dedication to international outreach has only increased in the last couple of years. In 2010, the institute introduced its new Film Forward partnership, which brought American independent films and their filmmakers to Kenya, China, Morocco, Tunisia, Puerto Rico, Uganda, France, and Turkey—and foreign films to screens in six cities across the US (for more on Film Forward, see “On the Road,” p. 133). And during the 2011 festival, the institute announced that a Screenwriters Lab in India would begin in 2012 as it honored the inaugural recipients of the Sundance Institute/Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award—young filmmakers from Malaysia, Mexico, Israel, and Romania. Soon after the festival, the institute revealed plans for the April 2012 debut of Sundance London, a four-day multidisciplinary festival presented with AEG Europe. Screenings of films fresh from the 2012 festival, along with live music performances, master classes, and cultural programming, will take place at the O2 Arena along the Thames River.
As Sundance Institute engages in collaborative work throughout the world and screens films in the most unlikely locations, it remains confident that the artists’ ideas will not be lost in translation. Some films are subtitled; some workshops and panels have the help of translators. But Sundance believes that film goes beyond the limits of language barriers—that the art form speaks with a powerful universal voice, with a human-scale lens that can bridge cultures and break down stereotypes.
Ultimately, that’s where all of the international initiatives, sort of like a classic Method actor, find their motivation. As Samer Mouasher, a Royal Jordanian film commissioner, puts it, “Film brings understanding, and understanding brings tolerance, and tolerance brings many, many, many beautiful things—including peace.”
Tina Lewis is the former chair of the Sundance Institute’s Utah Board and was director of the state of Utah International Business Development Office.