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Frame By Frame: Sundance Senior Programmer Shari Frilot Discusses the Transmedia Revolution, Cultural Activism for Filmmakers, & More

Frame By Frame: Sundance Senior Programmer Shari Frilot Discusses the Transmedia Revolution, Cultural Activism for Filmmakers, & More

The next conversation in our ongoing Frame By
Frame
series is with Shari Frilot, senior film programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and chief curator of the Sundance New Frontier
program, which converges film with fine art and new technology to discover new,
immersive ways of storytelling.

After beginning her career as a filmmaker in
the 1990s with experimental short "A Cosmic Demonstration of
Sexuality" and working on a series of other film and video works, Frilot
went on to co-found and curate programs at queer film festivals including MIX
and Outfest before joining Sundance in 1998.

We spoke at length about her career
beginnings, her work with Sundance, her perspective as a queer artist of color,
and bringing a spirit of diversity and inclusiveness to one of the world’s most
prestigious film festivals.

JAI TIGGETT: You began as a filmmaker. Tell me about how you got started in
storytelling and how you moved on to curation.

SHARI FRILOT: I started in art practice when I was in
college on an Engineering scholarship. I started working with collage and
became interested in integrating moving images within the collage, and that’s
kind of how I started making films. One of the first ones that I was able to
successfully complete was called "A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality,"
which was essentially about women and basic aspects of their sexuality told in
conjunction with the macro and microscopic structures of the universe. It was
kind of lighthearted, a little bit of comedy. And it showed at a lot of film
festivals.

I was really excited about this movie showing
every place, but it was being programmed in the same exact way every time it
went to a film festival. It was always in the black gay section, which I
actually don’t have a problem with, but we were always having the same
discussion. I wanted my film to be in a platform that opened up discussions
around structures of the universe and sexuality, as opposed to it being about
black women just because of who I am. It just wasn’t an expansive showcase and
a point of access to talking about the work.

So the movie was programmed at what was then
the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. The organizers had
been doing it for seven years and kind of wanted to move on, and they really
liked my film said, "Do you want to take over the festival?" I had
been banging my head up against this problem of exhibition so I said I’d do it.
I took that on and created MIX with Karim Ainouz, who was a filmmaker as well. We also co-founded MIX Mexico and
MIX Brazil. It was this concept of being frustrated with the conversation of
sexuality in America, and how the Brazilians were thinking about it in a
totally different way, that I found exciting.

JT: So it was really an outgrowth of your own frustrations as a
filmmaker that led to these other projects.

SF: I wanted to build a festival that I would
be excited as a filmmaker to screen with. Outfest was kind of the last straw
for me. I was part of a group of black gay filmmakers and it was kind of like a
Renaissance, a blossoming of community. And when I got to LA, Outfest was my LA
premiere and they were picketing the festival.

This was before [John] Cooper [then-Outfest
programmer] was there. They weren’t experiencing a good time there and they
felt like it was important to point out, you’re raising all of this money in your
grants on people of color, but we’re not seeing any of the benefits. We’re in
the smallest theaters at the worst times, and we’re at home stays when the
money that you’re raising is actually flying out these other filmmakers and
putting them up at hotels. So there was obvious racism, and they were picketing
and it made sense. Something had to be done. So on top of my own personal
experience, that led me to take on festival programming myself as a point of
kind of cultural activism.

JT: I’m curious also about your move from New York to Los Angeles
and how that affected your work.

SF: When I came to LA, I was the complete
opposite of LA. I didn’t like it. I was there for love. But something that
Cooper said to me in my first [Outfest] interview made me feel like maybe there
was a place for me. He said, "You’re really different from a lot of people
that we generally work with, and we’re interested because you’re
different." I was from New York, experimental background, person of color,
lesbionic, and maybe even the way that I was talking in that interview, I think
it was just different from what Outfest was at the time.

Then as soon as Cooper brought me to Outfest,
there was an opportunity for a consultancy at Sundance. Essentially he was trying
to give me enough work year-round so that I could stay at Outfest. I didn’t
really see that coming but I just couldn’t say no, even though I didn’t want to
get back into film festival programming. But when I interviewed, that’s when
they offered me the programming position. I have no regrets, other than my
filmmaking career has suffered tremendously [laughs].

JT: Do you plan to get back into filmmaking at some point?

SF: I never really left it. It’s always taken
me years to make something. And I’ve actually bitten off a really big project.
Right now I’m in the middle of a feature project, and I’m kind of ambivalent
about making a feature now, but it has these other elements to it. There’s an
exhibition part of it for science museums and a site-specific installation. It’s
all about water crisis. So it’s kind of still there. It’s on the back burner,
developing slowly but surely.

JT: What was the hesitation with making a feature?

SF: There were a couple of reasons. I started
it because it was a challenge, something I had never done before. But it
started a long time ago when the economy was different. The way that I had
conceived the budget and production outscales what’s possible right now. So now
I’m at a crossroads where I’ve written a script that’s really expensive, but a
story that I believe in. So I need to retool it so that it’s feasible to make
and also meets where I am artistically, which has changed over the years. It’s
sort of the first time that my curatorial process and practice has affected my
art making, because it’s New Frontier and the expanding ways of telling a story
that really affected how I wanted to approach "H2O."

JT: How so?

SF: It went from just a film project to a
traveling exhibition as well, to expand the story world so that it’s something
that you actually walk inside and experience in relationship to body and water
and building identity. I would have never thought about that before New
Frontier. I started conceiving this project in 2003 before I even learned about
this stuff.

It might have happened anyway, had somebody
else run New Frontier. Just being part of the world and finding access to this
broader way of telling stories, I probably would have ended up in this place.


JT: New Frontier evolved from the old Frontier section of the Sundance
Film Festival. Tell me about restructuring the program and what your goals
were.

SF: When I started at Sundance, it was the
newest program. It was experimental film and I came from experimental film
programming. I was doing MIX, and at Outfest I had started the Platinum Showcase.
Cooper and I worked on that, and he was really interested in bringing it to
Sundance. So when they brought me here they immediately gave me the Frontier
section to try to build something out of it.

So the very first New Frontier was called the
Sundance Online Film Festival and it happened in 2001. There were CD ROM works,
there were a couple of web series involved. Trevor [Groth] and I worked on it,
and it was showcased on five computers in the basement of the Main Street mall
where the digital center was, which was essentially a space that showcased the
wares of our sponsors. You could test the new Panasonic camera there, and we also
carved out a space for the online film festival.

But it was around 2004, right when YouTube hit
and became the second largest search engine behind Google, before Google bought
it, when we started to see it as an area that we need to pay attention to. That’s
when we started to build something beyond just the film section. We had a
digital center that was starting to look dusty at that point. Sundance was the
first major festival to have digital projection of work, because we were following
what the artists were doing. So we put our sights on that digital center and took
it over for programming.

JT: Tell me about your process of curating the program. 

SF: I talk to people, I go to events, and I’m
looking for work that is at the crossroads of filmmaking and art. The process
is very individual; it’s not an open call. It’s solicitation only and I’m
thinking with my programming hat on, from my experience of being at the
festival and knowing who’s there, what kind of work from these different areas
would actually speak to a film festival audience and inspire them to think
about storytelling in a different way.

JT: What kinds of projects from that arena translate best to a
film festival audience?

SF: The first element is a film language. So
we’re not really looking for conceptual art, even though it’s really interesting
and can actually thrill some audiences. It’s important to build a show that all
film festival audiences can come in and understand. There should be a kind of
seamless experience, going from the theater to seeing something at New
Frontier. There’s a link there, but then you should also feel pushed to
reconsider that the moving image can be used in a different way – The story can
be nonlinear. The story can actually follow me around in my phone and find me,
or I can find it in different corners of the festival. But I think what’s
essential is that cinematic language, a storytelling language that feels
related to what’s happening in the theaters.

JT: How do you see that in the context of where filmmaking is
headed? Do you see transmedia as something that will always live alongside the
typical theater-going experience, or do you ultimately see transmedia
displacing that in some way?

SF: All of the above. I think that it will
enrich the landscape, and in some ways upstage certain elements, and in some
ways remain a niche. It’s happening in movements to a film industry that’s also
rapidly evolving in different ways. Our film industry looks completely
different now than it did in a few years ago. And so the rise of this expanded
mode of cinematic storytelling has been making various propositions within the
cracks of how this industry broke open and bifurcated. Where there used to be
all this funding and support for independent film, it looks totally different
now.

Whereas Hollywood films have gotten bigger
fewer and more event-driven, that’s not really the pool that we’re playing in.
With independent film it’s very different. So the question that you’re asking
was being asked in 2009, but in 2010 people started to come looking for
answers.

JT: Where are some of the areas that you see New Frontier projects
breaking across to have greater impact, beyond just the exposure of the
festival?

SF: I think of a device like the Oculus Rift,
the infrastructure of it. I’ve never seen anything ramp up so fast. There’s not
a lot of cinematic storytelling content yet, only games. But I expect that to
really ramp up also, very fast, and that can change the whole game.

So it really depends. But all of this, in my
mind, is the realm of New Frontier. We took a chance on Nonny de la Pena in 2012 when she brought [Oculus founder] Palmer Luckey, who was a
19-year-old intern at the time, to do these journalist stories in virtual
reality. Only one person could see it at a time and it took 20 minutes. It made
no practical sense then, and now it makes complete sense. Now she’s at the
forefront of something that’s going to explode. So it’s a very rich terrain
that’s going to develop like a garden. Some of it’s going to be poppies and
some of it’s going to be grass that covers everything.

JT: This is a kind of storytelling that’s always evolving. How do
you stay on top of trends in the field, and where are you uncovering new work?

SF: I try not to think of any of this, New
Frontier or film curation, as a practice of expertise. No one’s an expert. We’re
all just out here looking at this stuff. We’re talking about it and we’re
hoping to build a slate of programs that are interesting to other human beings.
So it’s a very subjective process, the New Frontier part.

It’s people that I’m talking to in the field.
There are curators that I have great ongoing conversations with, and artists
recommend things. Hank Willis Thomas is always
recommending fantastic films and work. There are some regular events that I go
to, like the Venice Biennale, as much to
see the work as to contextualize what we’re doing here at Sundance and its
relevance to the art world. But there also new events that crop up and I’m scrambling
around trying to learn about them, some retrospectively.

And I work with a researcher. Ideally I try
to find somebody who’s tuned to where the field is moving. So I’m working with
someone right now who’s really great with new technology. A couple of years ago
I was working with somebody who was great at identifying people who were
working in fine art and installations. When we first started doing this, it
used to feel like opening up the future. But now I feel like if I can just hold
onto the whale, I’m lucky. It’s dragging me, I’m not dragging it anymore. And
it’s exciting because it’s a field that’s blossoming in different areas of our
festival as well.

JT: Tell me about programming for the overall festival. What’s the
process like, distilling down all the entries to less than 130 films?

SF: It’s morphed over the years that I’ve
been here. Right now it’s an eight-person committee, and the way that we go
about selecting the films for the festival is in different sections. We do it
mainly by committee, but there are different sections that get broken out and
all of us spearhead different teams. I’m on the American Dramatic team along
with Charlie Reff and Kim Yutani. We spearhead that section, which means we’re
kind of the ones that set the agenda for the films that are going to be
considered for the competition, and then the rest of the committee watches
these films and we all make decisions.

And then there are other sections that are
not that way, like Spotlight and Midnight are not so much a committee. So there
are little sections that are separate, but for the most part it’s a
committee-built festival. And it’s probably one of the most difficult and
gruesome processes you can imagine. It’s hard, because it’s so much easier to
build a section that’s your own. The thing is that when that happens, sections
that belong to certain programmers tend to take on the personality of the
programmer.

I think what makes our festival so dynamic is
that we fight over every single title. We have to stretch ourselves to
understanding there’s a reason for a certain film in the program even though
you don’t like it, to just fighting till you’re blue in the face for a film you
believe in when no one else is really into it. So what we end up having is a slate
that reflects eight different points of view. You get a very vibrant slate of
films because of this really hard process.

JT: When you’re deliberating, what’s driving those discussions?
Besides being generally well done, what are some of the things that really make
you fight for a certain film to be included?

SF: Everybody has a different answer to that.
My answer is, I’m very interested in freshness of content and perspective.
Something I’ve never seen before that really makes me think differently or feel
something real. A level of craft, but not always an element that trumps
originality. I’m probably more interested in originality than the level of
craft, but I think the level of craft is really going to determine if it plays.
It has to play, but if there’s an originality there that’s just like, "What
is this? Shane Carruth, what did
you make?" Then I start to fight for films like that.

Thomas Allen Harris, his film "Through A Lens Darkly", which was also accompanied by the Digital Diaspora Family
Reunion. This is a project that is singular, it’s historic. We have to show a
film like this. That’s the kind of film where I can see, from the tradition of African
American filmmaking, that this was an accomplishment. The same thing with "American
Promise."
Can you think of any other black
family that followed their sons for 13 years through the school process and
then told that story, warts and all? It’s an important film. It’s historic. And
so when a film has these different kinds of elements, on top of the fact that
they tell a story that you can understand, then that’s what gets me excited
about it and really start making cases for it and figuring out what section of
the festival it needs to play in, to really respect what that film is trying to
do.

JT: As the highest-ranking black woman on the programming team,
and the only one, do you find yourself often having to explain from your
perspective, certain films and their significance?

SF: That happens all the time, and it happens
not just to me but to others. Like, I’ll never understand the Georgian
experience, but there is a programmer on our team that does. And I definitely
will chime in on contextualizing and making a case based upon my personal and
historic understanding of the cinema, and also what is personal to me that is
not shared by the rest of the group, translating my response to that film. I
represent an audience that’s out there. That’s a lot of what I do and how I do
it has changed over the years. In the very beginning it also engaged with
shifting the language of how we talked about films. The term "diversity"
used to mean one thing when I first started, and now we use it in totally
different ways.

JT: So how do you work towards diversity at this point, as far as
festival projects and filmmaker presence in general? What’s the strategy, if
there is one?

SF: It’s become a lot easier over the course
of time that I’ve been here. I think when I first started in the ’90s, diversity
was valued as something that represents a group of minority people, that if
there was one in the lineup, that was enough. And now that’s not so much the
case. I think there’s a general interest and people are paying attention to what
the face of America is looking like, and how we have to stay relevant within
that changing demographic. So that’s an added point of discussion when we talk
about some of the films in the lineup.

But I live and believe very strongly that
diversity is our strength, and I think I’m not alone. Even [Robert] Redford is
into that concept, and he’s also interested in diversifying form too. He’s a
big proponent of New Frontier. I think that’s a deeply held value that we try
to find articulation for in the programs that we put out, and you can see that our
staff is also starting to reflect that as well, which is kind of exciting. It’s
a process and I think it always will be.

***
Thanks very much to Shari Frilot for the time. 

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Comments

BLACKFILMMAKER

Sad. Look at all the knuckleheads flocking to write over eighty comments on an op-ed about Tate Taylor's dastardly James Brown debacle. And no one commenting on the woman who has almost singlehandedly been responsible for every black filmmaker who has screened their work and launched a career at Sundance in the last ten years. Our collective eye is way off the ball, people. Thanks for all you do, Shari. We need you.

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