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BIZ: Their Day in the Sun: Sundance’s New Documentary Film Workshop

BIZ: Their Day in the Sun: Sundance's New Documentary Film Workshop

BIZ: Their Day in the Sun: Sundance's New Documentary Film Workshop

by Amy Goodman

(indieWIRE/ 08.27.01) — Every summer since 1981, the Sundance Institute has welcomed unproduced, independent fiction films and unknown filmmakers onto its fertile soil, and has yielded some of the juiciest feature films and careers in the land. Meanwhile, every winter for the past twenty years, documentary filmmakers trudged out of oblivion onto the freezing Park City streets for the Sundance Film Festival with the nonfiction fruits of their labor on their backs, hoping that a heroic buyer, or critic, or award will make the years of isolated creative toil worthwhile.

Surprisingly, there is a happy ending for the documentary filmmakers in this story. At the 2000 Film Festival, Sundance introduced a documentary resource center called the House of Docs, and along with it came the Sundance Documentary Film Program, a workshop for documentary filmmakers held each summer during the Institute’s Independent Producers Conference. Finally, documentary filmmakers could join their fiction-making counterparts in the sun at the Sundance resort. At the beginning of this August, the Sundance Institute hosted its second annual Documentary Film Program, and its success indicates that the program is here to stay.

“This sort of program for documentary filmmakers was always in Robert Redford‘s plan,” says Nicole Guillemet, Co-Director of the Sundance Film Festival and Director of the Documentary Program. She is sitting in an antechamber at the far end of the Rehearsal Hall, where this year’s Independent Producers Conference attendees are eating breakfast. Until 2000, the Institute hosted the Conference every summer for the producers of independent fiction films only. But in recent years, Nicole says, “The quality of the documentaries at the Festival was consistently fabulous and we kept hearing that it’s the best section of the Festival. So two years ago, I went to Robert Redford and I said, ‘It’s time.'”

The documentary workshop, held for the second time this past August 2-5, is still, in Guillemet’s words, a “pilot program,” which she translates as, “we’re still trying to figure out the best format.” Regardless of the program’s growing pains, its success and growth is exciting for a few reasons. For one, says filmmaker and UC Berkeley professor Jon Else, one of the 2001 Documentary Program panelists, “In the world of documentaries intended to find big audiences and make a difference in the world, Sundance is ‘it.'” In addition, Sundance’s program offers a rare respite from the harsh economic realities of documentary filmmaking, an opportunity to revel in creativity and craft. “Too much is dictated by the marketplace, that’s the reality,” says Guillemet. “This program recognizes that, but offers to take the business element out of the documentary filmmaker’s process for a while.”

This year, the program worked like this: the Institute awarded fellowships to three documentary filmmakers, which means that these three filmmakers got a full ride to the Independent Producer’s Conference. Established industry professionals had to nominate the filmmakers for the fellowship program; the Institute did not accept unsolicited submissions. On August 2, the three filmmakers arrived with their films, which were diverse in style and in different stages of completion.

Simultaneously, four panelists arrived, from all corners of the documentary world, from TV acquisition to academia to filmmaking. For the next two and a half days, the fellows attended panels, watched and workshopped their films, and had “one-on-one” meetings with each panelist over lunch or breakfast, or on a forty minute-long chairlift ride. The panelists offered their diverse opinions, advice, and business cards in case the filmmakers need anything in the future. In addition to the three fellows, there were around fifteen documentarians who also attended the Documentary Program. They could attend panels, but individual meetings were not in the Conference schedule.

This year’s three documentary fellows are all relative newcomers. Austin-based Ramona Diaz brought a rough cut of her film about Imelda Marcos, called “Imelda: Steel Butterfly.” Amanda Micheli, a San Francisco-based documentary producer and DP, presented a tiny piece of “Double Dare,” about the stunt women behind “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Wonder Woman.” And Yvonne Welbon came with “Sisters In Cinema,” a historical doc about the history of African American women in film.

The panelists included Julie Anderson, Director of Documentary Programming for HBO, Douglas Chang, Director of Programming for KCET, the PBS member station in Los Angeles, filmmaker and professor Jon Else (“Sing Faster,” “Eyes on the Prize“), and PBS VP of Programming – Midwest, Alice Myatt.

The 2001 program was clearly a hit with panelists and filmmakers alike. “The bottom line,” says “Double Dare” director Amanda Micheli, “is that you’re getting one-on-one time with these four panelists, who are usually too busy to return your phone calls, and they’re with you because they want to donate their time to you. And they don’t see you as some loser off the street looking for advice. The environment fosters an exchange between filmmakers and buyers on a more intelligent level than the exchange you might have at the Festival, where you’re all just thinking about The Sale.”

“It was the most inspiring experience for me,” says Julie Anderson, “being a mentor, working with new filmmakers, exchanging ideas on panels. I came home all jazzed up and re-excited about filmmaking.”

Both Micheli and Diaz, who met in 1996 when both were nominated for Student Academy Awards, made great contacts during the program, got expert advice on how to improve their films and loads of individual attention. As “an unexpected bonus,” Diaz says, she even got a few nibbles from theatrical distributors.

And since the program is still in “pilot” phase, all the participants had ideas of how it can be improved in the future. Everyone, for example, felt the strain of one conundrum: how to create an atmosphere in which a filmmaker with a film to sell can accept the critical, ultra-informed feedback of powerful acquisitions executives, without succumbing to the overwhelming urge to SELL! SELL! To exacerbate this matter, the filmmakers, who were told that they would not be formally pitching their projects during the program, were caught off guard when on the first day of the program, they were asked to introduce themselves to the panelists

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