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25 Years of Independence, Sundance Looks to the Future as It Honors Its Documentary Past

By Laura Almo

From Hoop Dreams, which premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival

For the past 25 years, the Sundance Institute has been synonymous with independent cinema.

But there once was a world without Sundance.

The year was 1980. Jimmy Carter was US President, the Iran hostage crisis was casting a pall on the American psyche, and, in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US government had voted to boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow. CNN was just getting off the ground and Hollywood was dominating American film. The problem was that American film was getting stale--formulaic storytelling translated into a sameness in the movies coming out of Hollywood. Independent cinema--or, at least, a high-profile platform for itwas a little-known concept.

It was in this context that actor Robert Redford gathered a group of contemporaries in Sundance, Utah to talk about innovative ways to deepen and enrich the artistic potential of American film. If people were to make films outside of the Hollywood system, they would need resources. If there were to be new voices finding fresh ways to tell their stories, they would need to be in an environment where they could learn from others who were more experienced, where they could try new techniques, fall down, make mistakes, get back up and then learn from those mistakes. In other words, people would need a place that supported the creative process.

Talk turned to action and in June 1981 the Sundance Institute held its first program for independent filmmakers at the Sundance Resort in Provo Canyon, Utah. Ten filmmakers were selected to participate in the June Filmmakers Lab to develop their projects under the tutelage of seasoned filmmakers, including the likes of director Sydney Pollack and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

This was the birth of the Sundance Institute.

That same year, the United States Film Festival moved from Salt Lake City to Park City, Utah and expanded to include documentaries, short films and dramatic features. Then, in 1985, the Sundance Institute took on creative and administrative control of the US Film Festival, and in 1991 the festival was officially renamed the Sundance Film Festival.

Since the early days of the festival, documentaries have been an integral part of the film line-up. "We have always felt that documentaries are the closest we could get to the history of ideas," says Ken Brecher, executive director of the Sundance Institute. "If you want to look at who we are as a people, and what we've been like in this part of the 21st century and certainly in the last part of the previous century, there is no better place to look than documentary filmmaking."

It is said that you haven't been to the Sundance Film Festival unless you've seen an important documentary. Over the years such films as The Times of Harvey Milk, Sherman's March, Hoop Dreams, Crumb, A Brief History of Time, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Silverlake Life, Capturing the Friedmans, Control Room, Born Into Brothels and Super Size Me have all premiered at Sundance. "If you really want to hear what people thought, you have to look at documentary work," says Brecher.

In 2005, Sundance launched the World Documentary Competition to showcase international documentaries alongside the American fare. Brecher explains that this was a very deliberate move: Put a film in competition and attendance increases. Audiences are drawn to films in competition, as are the over 1,000 fully credentialed members of the press who attend screenings, write about the films and create a buzz. Word gets out, films gather steam and in a very short time people are talking about relatively unknown documentary films.

The festival may be the most visible part of the Sundance Institute, but ever since the early days its year-round programs have been essential. As Sundance turns 25, the Documentary Film Program celebrates its tenth anniversary. In those ten years the program has grown so that it now supports documentaries in three ways: the festival, the Documentary Fund and the Filmmaker Labs. Diane Weyermann, the former director of the Documentary Film Program, was instrumental in expanding it to include World Documentaries and two filmmaker labs--the Edit/Storytelling Lab and the Documentary Film Composers Lab, both designed to improve these crucial aspects of documentary filmmaking.

The Sundance Documentary Fund--formerly the Soros Documentary Fund--has provided support for over 300 films. The grants are awarded twice a year to support approximately 15 high-level documentaries each cycle. "The fund has really deepened everything we do," Brecher points out.

Until now, the Sundance Documentary Fund has supported films that focus on contemporary human rights issues, social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression, but the fund will expand to support true artistry in filmmaking. Brecher explains that exceptional films on difficult subjects have a greater impact if they are true works of art. At the same time he acknowledges that it's tricky to express the qualities that elevate a film to this artistic level. "Very often the filmmaking is there on many other levels but they're not works of art," says Brecher. He asserts that many films are well recorded, bear witness and have a tremendous impact--but they don't exist as a work of art. "Anyone who sees a lot of documentary work knows when they're in the presence of it," Brecher notes. "But can we teach it? Can we even describe it? I think we can."

The notion of true artistry may transcend words, but it is something that is skillfully crafted and touches the mind, heart or soul of the viewer. Brecher explains that to enhance the level of art in the films, Sundance will identify people who are true film artists and who are also great documentarians and bring them into the mix, both to help them with their own work and to ask these artists to advise others.

"The Sundance style is not to ever tell anyone what to do," Brecher maintains. "We say, 'What are you trying to do?' Then we try to think of ways to support that." Everything that Sundance does is artist-driven, from the mentoring and advising to connecting composers with filmmakers. Apart from money, artists need guidance, support and a place to work, and this is what Sundance is all about. Providing a safe space for people to take creative risks has always been at the heart of the Sundance philosophy. "We want to give filmmakers the chance to trust themselves as artists," Brecher affirms.

Over the course of 2006, Sundance will announce special anniversary celebrations. One such commemoration is the release of a DVD collection of documentaries that have screened at Sundance. But more than reminiscing about the past, the Sundance staff has its sites set on what lays ahead. "We're much more interested in the future," Brecher explains. "We're much more interested in looking at what's missing, how to be more relevant."

One priority is building new audiences. There are plans on the horizon to open the Sundance Cinemas, which will draw attention to art house theatres. This bodes well for documentary makers. "The art house has never failed to be there for the documentary filmmaker," Brecher notes. From Film Forum in New York to the Nuart in Los Angeles, the art house is the true colleague of the documentarian.

And reaching young people is another priority for Sundance. "We want young audiences for documentaries," Brecher maintains. "We want them to feel that in documentary they have access to information that they're not going to get anywhere else." Brecher sees film as a delivery system--for social change, for values, for truth. "If you ask me what our goal is over the next ten years, our goal is to be the greatest resource that we can offer this country for film [and theater] that raises and articulates the questions of our time," says Brecher. "And what better way than documentary film?"

Think back to 1980... How would things have been different had we had a support system to encourage the diverse voices raising questions about the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War? Now we do.


Laura Almo was an instructor for Reel Stories, Sundance Institute's Youth Documentary Workshop at Spy Hop Productions, and is currently teaching editing at El Camino College in Los Angeles.