Skip to main content

A Decade of Diversely Exchanged Ideas: Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program

By Daniel James Scott

Editor's Note: The Sundance Institute Documentary Film Programs and Fund is the receipient of the IDA Pioneer Award; this article appeared in the Summer 2012 issue in commemoration of the DFP's 10th anniversary. 

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund  (DFP), a key source of support for some of the best documentaries to come out over the past decade. Some recent grantees include The Oath (Dir.: Laura Poitras), Gasland (Dir.: Josh Fox), Trouble the Water (Dirs.: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal), Bully (Dir.: Lee Hirsch) and The Island President (Dir.: Jon Shenk). The diversity of issues and styles represented in these films reflects the mission of the DFP at its simplest: to encourage "the diverse exchange of ideas by artists as a critical pathway to developing an open society."

The Documentary Film Program has come a long way since 2002. Its core Documentary Fund now awards up to $2 million a year in grants to films in all stages of development. Its Creative Labs have expanded to encompass more areas of production. And its strategic partnerships now span the globe. Director Cara Mertes, who came on board in 2006 after serving as executive producer of the flagship PBS series POV, attributes the program's success to a greater need for the kinds of films it supports--namely, social-issue films that work first and foremost as films. 

"I think people recognize when they're confronted with a film that has an agenda, and they recognize when they're confronted with a film that's actually trying to explore the genre of documentary," Mertes explains. "We've seen more interest in this type of storytelling, more impact in this type of storytelling, and a national and international conversation accelerating around contemporary issues because of this type of storytelling."

It's often said that documentary filmmakers have dual roles: as activists and as storytellers. While every film merits its own balance, the filmmakers the DFP supports reflect the growing synonymy between the two. Jon Shenk, a multiple Sundance grantee, can speak to this. His latest film, The Island President, about former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, embeds a scientific discussion about climate change within a story about one man's attempt to save the planet. 

"The activism and the story are all one and the same," Shenk says of the film. Of his dual roles as a documentarian, he observes, "We're filmmakers working in a long history of cinema. We have to acknowledge that and be true to that. But on the other hand, when you're making something that's nonfiction, people are going to make the connection between your film and the real world. So we wear those two hats. Sometimes the activism hat is a little larger. Sometimes it's a little smaller."

You could say that Shenk struck the perfect balance in The Island President, fusing expository and observational storytelling styles to produce a film that is equal parts fascinating and informative. The DFP awarded The Island President the first ever Hilton Worldwide Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The $25,000 grant is allocated towards the film's marketing and distribution, as well the development of Shenk's next project.

The Hilton Worldwide partnership is one among many that the DFP has established in order to support filmmakers whose works can have a social impact. Another key partner is the Skoll Foundation, which has funded the Stories of Change initiative. The program pairs nonfiction filmmakers with social entrepreneurs to produce a slate of ten films that consider social entrepreneurs and their issues. "We saw similarities between how social entrepreneurs are operating in the world and how our social issue storytellers are operating in the world," says Mertes. "They're both very interested in creating momentum and impact around key issues. They have different tool sets to do that. But we thought that if we brought those two sectors together, you could create some very powerful momentum, and that's exactly what's happened."

For filmmakers who have completed their projects and are preparing to embark on their social outreach campaigns, the DFP's Good Pitch forum is a saving grace. A collaboration with the BRITDOC Foundation, the one-day event gives a select group of filmmakers the opportunity to pitch their films and outreach campaigns to an audience of foundations, NGOs, campaigners and other media organizations. Since 2009, the event has been running several times a year in the US and Europe, both as standalone events and in the context of conferences and film festivals. One filmmaker fortunate enough to participate in The Good Pitch was Michael Collins, whose film Give Up Tomorrow scooped up Audience Awards at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Traverse City Film Festival and many others. 

Give Up Tomorrow examines an appalling miscarriage of justice that took place in the Philippines 15 years ago. Paco Larrañaga, then 19 years old, was given the death penalty for allegedly committing a double murder that occurred on an island hundreds of miles away from him at the time. Over the course of the film, a grassroots campaign develops to help reverse the death penalty and transfer him to a prison in Spain, where he is currently incarcerated. Set on bringing about Larrañaga's release, Collins says he made significant headway at The Good Pitch.

"We had real, measurable success that came out of there," Collins asserts. "The DFP really fills that room with people who they think you can forge partnerships with, in order to help your film succeed and your social campaign succeed. We met the head of Amnesty International's death penalty abolishment campaign, and we've continued to work with them."

At press time, Collins and his producer, Marty Syjuco, were in the midst of their Free Paco Now campaign. The two have constructed a website,, that features a petition, steps for action, case documents and the endorsement of several human rights organizations. "Since the film premiered a year ago, people from the Spanish embassy have seen it," says Syjuco "And two months later, Paco told us that they were already treating him differently. Now we actually think that he's on the path to parole."

"Last November we had a screening in Bilbao, Spain, and the Spanish government asked permission from the prison if Paco could attend," Collins adds. "So they granted Paco a one-day pass. And he came to the screening, he sat with the audience, and he saw the film for the first time. And after seeing it, he told us, 'I slept better that night than I've slept in 15 years.'"

Every film that the DFP supports fosters its own kind of impact. In the case of Give Up Tomorrow, that impact assumes the more tangible form of a wrongfully accused man's release from prison. In other cases, impact isn't so readily quantifiable. The documentaries of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Laura Poitras, for example, don't set out to prescribe any easy solutions to the problems they represent. Poitras, a multiple grantee and Creative Labs alumnus, has shepherded the first two installments of her post-9/11 trilogy--My Country, My Country and The Oath--through the DFP. 

She was in Iraq soon after the US-led invasion working on My Country, My Country when she received news of her first DFP grant. "It was the first substantial grant that was committed to the project," she recalls. "And it was kind of a surreal experience, because I was on all these phone calls and I was in this conflict zone and there were mortars exploding." My Country, My Country captures the reality of Iraqis approaching elections under occupation. The film began as a condemnation of the Iraq War, but became more complex once Poitras started production. "I thought this idea of elections under occupation was a complete contradiction," she recalls. "And then I got there and was like, 'Oh wow, these people are actually risking their lives to vote under occupation.' Well, you have to recognize the fact that they want self-determination. Of course, they don't want occupation. So the film actually did celebrate the democracy project in a weird way, and it also condemned the occupation."

The reconfiguration of values is no small achievement. To effect that change through storytelling that acknowledges complexity, and even celebrates it, underscores the DFP's criteria for selecting candidates. "We know all filmmakers bring subjectivity to the table, so it's a question of how they reveal that and how they position that," says Mertes. "I think that Laura Poitras' work offers a very deep consideration of questions about contemporary events. But it's not journalism. It's much more lyrical and impressionistic. However, it's true. The facts in it are verifiable. It's the way that those facts are constructed into the story that makes it such fascinating watching."

The DFP encourages its vision of dynamic storytelling all over the world. If it can't support filmmakers directly, it supports organizations that do. Over the last five years, the DFP has offered assistance to regions where support for the arts is lacking. In the Middle East, it partnered with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture to support Arab documentaries. In China, it did the same with the Beijing nonprofit CNEX. Its relationship to both organizations is similar to that of a creative advisor. "We make final decisions with them, we bring in international advisors, and we model for them what we've learned about doing an international grant and workshop system of support," Mertes explains.

Time and again, the Documentary Film Program has facilitated the release of some of the most ambitious documentaries to come out in recent memory--films ambitious not just in subject matter, but in their construction and their intended use beyond the screen. Just as the program has elevated the filmmakers it supports, so filmmakers have elevated the program.

"I think that because our mandate is as comprehensive as it is, it would be foolish not to do it in partnership with like-minded organizations," says Mertes. "It is really important that you find partners who have a consistency of vision that is aligned with the consistency of vision that [the DFP] has." And that vision abides that "if you're not using documentary storytelling to advance your issue or your experience of the world, then you're leaving one of the most effective tools available to you off the table."


Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect and other publications.