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Sundance Turns Silver: Gilmore and Mertes Reflect on a Quarter-Century of Innovation

By Laura Almo

The Sundance Film Festival celebrates its 25th edition this year, and in that quarter-century, Sundance-both the festival and its parent Institute-have been instrumental in helping to move the documentary form forward, giving it prominent stature with the indie fiction fare and serving as a launch pad for docs that would go on to earn considerable kudos and plaudits. The inaugural Sundance Film Festival--then called the United States Film Festival--premiered such soon-to-be classics as The Times of Harvey Milk, Seventeen and Streetwise. Since then, Sherman's March, Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, Grizzly ManMan on Wire, among many other groundbreaking works, have all borne the Sundance imprimatur.

One man who, in large measure, is responsible for taking Sundance to where it is today is Geoffrey Gilmore, its long-serving director. On the eve of the festival's silver edition, Documentary spoke with Gilmore about Sundance's unwavering support of documentary films, how the form has evolved and the elusive programming process.

Documentary: Documentaries are given equal footing with narrative films at Sundance. Has it always been this way?

Geoffrey Gilmore: Not only was it always that way, it was something that [founder Robert] Redford emphasized from the very beginning. I have to give him the credit because it was established before I even took over the festival 19 years ago. Year after year Redford would say things like, "If you want to come to the festival and watch a great film, pick a documentary." It created a platform for documentaries at the festival that gave them visibility and significance that almost nothing else besides the Academy Award nominations did. There would be stories written from year to year by people like David Ansen in Newsweek in which they'd say, "This year, the story at Sundance was the documentaries."

D: How did treating documentaries on a par with narrative films impact the public's appreciation of documentaries?

GG: It started to legitimate the idea that you could take documentaries out of the category that they've been so often confined to, which is their narrowly defined world of archetypical PBS or BBC Television educational or political documentaries, and look at them as a theatrical presentation. It allowed us to view a spectrum of documentary work, and it allowed for a sensibility to emerge that documentaries could now cover almost any subject. They could set tones and do things inside those documentaries that literally fragmented peoples' ideas of what documentaries were. 

D: What have you observed about the evolution of the documentary form?

GG: I think the documentary arena opened itself up so much in the last two decades that you can start to see any number of ways that are innovative, ranging from the aesthetic to the question of subject and focus. You have such a range of different kinds of technique and work that allows you to look at this and say, "Wow, that's not what your archetypical film course in the university program would have offered."

I think we really changed the thinking about what people were doing by showcasing a whole range of personal documentary. I've often said that I thought that one of the major changes in the documentary form was the idea that the individual stood in front of their film. Michael Moore, of course, is the penultimate example of it [others include Nick Broomfield, Alan Berliner, Judith Helfand, Ross McElwee and Morgan Spurlock], but the idea that the storyteller was in their film-and would be part of what the work would be-changed the nature of how one started to think about what a documentary filmmaker could do. Personal documentary then just became part and parcel almost half of what we started to see. In a film like Silverlake Life--which won [an award] some years ago-the filmmakers put themselves right into the middle of their story, and I saw that across the board again and again and again.

D: How is the work that you're seeing now different from earlier work?

GG: One of the things that really distinguishes the work that we're dealing with right now is what I call "impact of globalization." A film about the family farm now deals with environmental issues and becomes by its nature internationally conceived. I see that in work across the board-subject after subject after subject, in which the kind of insularity of perspective that we saw a decade ago is now much more far reaching and global.

D: Sundance is recognized as a discovery festival. Talk about how true discoveries have gone on to define how the documentary art form has evolved?

GG: When you talk about the discoveries at Sundance, it raises a lot of questions as to what "discoveries" at Sundance means. The idea for us was to open up the aesthetic, to open up the possibility of what people thought about. Showing Stacy Peralta documenting Dogtown and Z-Boys or having Morgan Spurlock deal with his own quest in Super Size Me is part of what that sense of freshness, of reinvention, of innovation in the documentary world should be--and it shouldn't always be confined to high art.

A film like Tarnation is a different kind of work, and it's a different question. When you ask people what documentary is, a lot of people will answer the question in very oversimplified terms. They'll start talking about work that is defined by its content and by its approach to that content. They'll say that it's nonfiction and therefore it has a certain kind of quality to it that means it's not constructed, that you'd bring a camera to it and capture it.

This kind of definition ignored the history of documentary, where you have a filmmaker like Flaherty practically making fiction films as a documentarist. This definition never understood that documentary is on a spectrum, on a continuum with fiction-not in a world separate from, but on a continuum.

Films like Tarnation threw the construction of work and the conventions of reality into complete consternation. The filmmakers didn't even know what to call it. I literally asked both Gus Van Sant and Stephen Winter, the film's executive producers, and one told me it was fiction and one told me it was documentary. It goes back to the issue of how one defines what the continuum of fiction and nonfiction are on the screen.

D: How would you define documentary?

GG: I actually see it as more of a question. I'm not a purist; I don't really care, in some ways. I don't really feel defining a documentary means that much. When I look at documentary I can see it representing almost the full spectrum of conventions, from vérité to something that's almost fictional in its apparatus.

I see documentary as ultimately being something that you might say adapts a point of view more than it is actually a formalistic convention. It's more about how the filmmaker is dealing with the material, rather than with the material itself.

We're not always consistent as to what the definitions of it are. We can go from one festival to the next and change our minds, which we've done.

D: Talk about the programming process. Many of the programmers have been at Sundance for a long time and have a certain sensibility; how does this come into play when looking at specific films and programming the entire festival?

GG: The programming staff as a group all get to comment and argue and fight for certain kinds of work. But at the end of the day there's only one person making decisions--which is me--in part because I wanted there to be a real vision as to what the program would be. I didn't want it to fall into what I've seen happen at different festivals, where people each get a couple of choices and it gets to be this kind of erratic collection of sensibilities.

Our discussions about documentary are particularly difficult because there's always more quality work than any of the other programs. It's always the most difficult to make distinctions between what one person considers to be really superior work and what somebody else looks at and says, "This is garbage."

I think you'd be sometimes stunned as to what people like and don't like that later comes out as, "Oh my God, everyone thinks this film is great!' Well, let me tell you, that was hardly the case when we were first reviewing it.

There's no question that the breadth of sensibility and scope that people have becomes an enormous battle. I remember one person in particular was talking about Man on Wire last year as this great film, and there were at least two people in the room who were talking about it as "Why would you ever show this?"

You look at work objectively and you look at it professionally, and yet you also have an enormous range of personal sensibilities that may come into play when you're talking about work. And you have to try to figure out a way to bring it back off the personal, or you might call it back off the idiosyncratic, and bring it back to a platform where there's actually some kind of judgment being made. That's why I have so carefully guarded that final decision-making process--so it doesn't ever become simply idiosyncratic.

Cara Mertes has helmed the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program since 2006, following a distinguished tenure as executive director of the PBS series P.O.V. While a number of docs that have been funded and/or developed through the program and its Film Edit and Story and Composers Labs have gone on to screen at the festival, the Institute and the Festival are not so much partners as siblings in the same Sundance family. Mertes talked to Documentary about how the two entities work together.

Documentary: Explain the relationship between the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Documentary Film Program?


Cara Mertes: I came to Sundance two years ago and started working really closely with the film festival programming staff. I am an advisor on documentary programming, so I give my opinions to Geoff  [Gilmore] and the other programmers, and work with them as they're putting together the final list. I'm not a programmer officially because we run the Documentary Film Program, and there would be a conflict of interest there. We support many filmmakers who apply to the festival, but we do advise because we have deep experience within the documentary world, and I think the film festival felt it would be helpful if they could get as much help and advice as possible.

We continue with the activities that were already taking place, so we put together all of the documentary-based panels within the context of the film festival.

D: What have you got planned for this year's festival?

CM: This year we're bringing over 20 documentary film program grantees; they're coming and gathering at the film festival to network, to let people know about their films and possibly to raise money.

We're doing our best to create a documentary community within the context of the festival overall because it does really highlight and spotlight the feature film.

The Filmmaker's Lodge will be open from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. precisely because if you don't have a private party to go to--and that's a lot of documentary people--we wanted to make sure there would be a space that was open on Main St. until 1:00 a.m.

So from 10 to one, if you have the right credentials you can get into the Filmmaker Lodge-which will be fantastic, and I think it's going to be packed every night. 

D: If you've received funding from the Sundance Documentary Film Program, does that mean your film will automatically get into the festival?

CM: If you're funded by the documentary program or the feature film program, there is no relationship between that and getting into the film festival; they're two separate processes. They draw a very clear line, as do we. They have a separate process and they want the film festival to be as open as possible to new voices, new talent and new storytelling. We've always kept a sort of firewall there. Of course there's discussion in-house, but I have to say people are very, very fair-minded, and when you're in the programming process for the Sundance Film Festival, films rise or fall because of their storytelling and on the basis of any number of things the programmers take into account, but nobody does anybody any favors because they're already within the institute.

D: During your tenure at P.O.V. and now at Sundance, what have you observed about how the documentary form has changed over the years?

CM: This is something that I've talked about quite a bit. I think we probably are seeing a new kind of golden age in documentary in terms of form, in terms of reach, and the storytelling skill that people are bringing to bear. The filmmakers working in documentary now are really extraordinary and inventive. I think it's the most inventive genre we have right now, so that is really exciting. It's becoming more global as a practice; people are traveling all over the world telling world stories to world audiences. That's very, very new.

We are seeing contemporary issue documentary, and a subset of that being human rights documentary, increasingly take up the kind of work in the independent documentary world. People understand that's there's a huge impact that they can have with these stories, and because of the access of technology we have, you don't have to have a whole group of 25 people around you in order to make a documentary.

We have really fantastic documentary makers who work alone, or with a team of one and then they bring in their editor. It's a very, very small, limited kind of crew; you can do a lot with very little, both in terms of money and in terms of personnel.

D: Are there styles/types of films you don't see much of anymore?

CM: I think the personal essay filmmaking, where you're the center of your documentary and talking about something that happened in your life, is something that we saw a lot of in the '80s and early '90s, and you don't see so much of anymore. You occasionally will see filmmakers put themselves at the center of a documentary in order to get to the bottom of an issue or a conundrum that makes them curious as artists, but more and more we're seeing people pick up on issues and characters, or just experimenting with the form itself.

D: Anything else about this year's festival?

This is the 25th Sundance Film Festival, and in terms of documentary I've never seen a year that has more of a focus on contemporary issues and human rights across the board in the programming. It's just a really, really exciting year for any of us who are involved in contemporary issue and human rights documentaries

Laura Almo is a contributing editor to Documentary magazine. She can be reached at