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Creating a New World: A Conversation with Shari Frilot, Chief Curator, New Frontier

By Ken Jacobson

Shari Frilot. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Finding refuge from the cacophony of New Frontier in the basement of the Kimball Art Center, I sat down with Chief Curator Shari Frilot to discuss her selection process for the Sundance Film Festival's impressive lineup of independent experimental media works. Frilot also touched on the incredibly diverse array of New Frontier Films and Performances and how the introduction of three new venues is changing the architecture of New Frontier.

What’s your overall assessment of the work this year at New Frontier?

Shari Frilot: This field is amazing. I think the ability of the artists to wrap their heads around these new technologies to tell a story, they're getting better and better at it. Whereas in years past, the technology's so amazing, it's a story in-and-of itself. I feel like it's been a quantum leap up in terms of the artists' ability to create stories that are layered and are so good that the technology just starts to disappear because you are so inside of the story.

I thought this advance in the field was not going to happen for another five years, and then, all of a sudden, it happens over the course of a year. I feel like this year, across the board, you’re really starting to see a sophistication in storytelling.

From the artists' point of view, it seems like there's a kind of improvisational dance, even after the Friday opening. They're constantly tweaking things or even adding things.

New Frontier remains an experimental section of the festival. And it'll never be competitive because it's built so that artists and filmmakers can take chances. Artists are trying to figure out what they're trying to do when they cross practices or collaborate with a different genre. A lot of these projects are meant to be in progress.

Maybe with the exception of the mobile VR lineup, there's not really a marketplace waiting for them, so there's actually a purity to it, and that's actually spurring innovation on the marketplace. New Frontier has always been a place to explore new things and not to create a perfect saleable unit that plugs into a mature marketplace.

It seems like timing and trends and themes are part of your curatorial process. How does that work?

There's a lot of flexibility with the curation. We always love to premiere stuff, but it's more about finding the right works for the right time.

The curation is rooted in conversations I have with filmmakers, what the festival is to filmmakers and what filmmakers are interested in and excited about. At the root of that is storytelling. I'm going out and looking for works that I think our audiences could really appreciate.

I'm also looking at technology, like the HaptX project, Experience Realistic Touch. Even though there's no story in that, you can see how it's being responded to here by storytellers who immediately know what to do with that technology. So, that's another part of what we're trying to do.

We also have an open call for VR, and that's been tremendous. I work with [Sundance Documentary Programmer] Hussain Currimbhoy, who oversees our VR open call process. The reason our VR slate is so international and you're seeing a lot of new names in the lineup this year is because of that open call. There were more works from Asia than ever before in the section.

I get everybody involved. I show projects to [Festival Director John] Cooper and [Director of Programming] Trevor [Groth]—people who are really focused on film and not necessarily on VR. It's really important that these projects work on a film audience that's not really keeping up with the trends and not influenced by the push and the pressure of introducing something new. They're just trying to figure out how the story works. So, that's also part of the process.

Do you work with Kamal Sinclair and the New Frontier Story Lab to see what’s bubbling up from there?

I go to the lab looking for work like I go anywhere—to Venice or the IDFA DocLab—but I do have a hand in selecting the projects for the lab as well. The labs have gotten stronger in terms of bringing a higher quality every year, so that gets me excited as an exhibitor.

How did your curator's statement, "Superbody Reflection," emerge for this year?

It pretty much is a reflection of what the show is. I don't really go into these curations with an idea, like an organizing concept or principle. It's very different from the art world paradigm of putting together a show. I'm looking to put together the most diverse show, lean on my experience selecting films for the festival and bring that directly into the perspective of New Frontier. I'm out for diverse experiences and expressions and as many different kinds of people who can put practices in the room, the better.

And then, once it's there, when I feel like, "Wow, there are 20-30 amazing works and our venues are maxed and this is the show," then I step back and I think about what that show is and write that statement. And that statement really is the thoughts that the show has offered me and looking at it as a whole. Also, just tracking how technology has developed at this hyper rate in the last three or four years and wanting to contribute a perspective around the technology part of it that is human that is coming out from the work.

I personally feel it's necessary to remember that technology is not something that is separate from us; we literally are made of the same things, the same material. It's an extension and our brains are formed by technology and always have been since caveman times. So, I try to hit that, too. I try to contribute to a humanistic embrace of what technology is to us.

Is there anything about the more documentary-oriented projects here this year that you could speak to in terms of trends?

There's something for documentary filmmakers to pay attention to with AI, formally, because there's a documentary aspect to it—something that's not fictional; it's factual. You could almost think of it as a kind of new genre.

For example, in Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made by Many [a piece in which eight participants interact with an AI], you're participating in a narrative through your experiences and interactions and then those become the AI along with Mary Shelley's text.

When did you start to see that social VR was going to be a theme this year?

I knew this was coming when Facebook bought Oculus. That was going to be a Golden Fleece moment simply because of that and then people started to take it on block-by-block trying to create content for the VR headsets. When Life of Us [a social VR experience created by Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin that premiered at New Frontier 2017] came out, that really was a huge quantum leap of what it's like to create with other people inside of a virtual environment.

How did you land on the four New Frontier Films and Performances that you chose?

The New Frontier Films and Performances section is older than the exhibition aspects. The film section was established even before I got here in '99. It's great that it continues to be around. It's a very vital part of this whole development of coming up with new ways of telling stories. Some of them are structuralist and formal like (Star). It's really for people who love cinema and cosmos. I love showing films like that by filmmakers who are serious structuralists leaning on the form more than anything else and articulating this narrative or conceptual idea and, through the form, creating a narrative.

Sam Green is right now rehearsing with the Kronos Quartet. His choice to expand his documentary practice and hybridize it with performance and live presentation and PowerPoint continues to astonish me. And it came from, "I want to try this for New Frontier." That was with the very first one back in 2010. He's done so many of them in such a successful way that we wondered, Is it New Frontier anymore? Is it something that's established now? We looked at it and saw the growth with what he's doing with his practice. Before, he was telling the story with those different elements; with this one, he's burrowing into the stage. It's like a site-specific [piece] because he's telling the story of Kronos, Kronos is there and he's also talking to Kronos, so there's like a loop going. That's different than all of the other works that he's done.

There are so many things to say about Cory's piece [Cory McAbee's live performance Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences]. How it sits in the program is really interesting because of how Cory's thinking about space and the relationship between human beings and space. How he thinks about the cosmic connection as something that reflects the interior that helps us to understand ourselves in a different way. Cory is looking for the spiritual origins of space. It's just beautifully poetic work and funny and really stimulating. His style is just so accessible and fun.

Kimball Art Center, New Frontier at The Ray, and The Box at the Ray are new venues for you this year. How did you end up at the new venues and how did you mesh the curation with the venues and the design?

New Frontier was an experiment. We didn’t have any budget line for it. The venues were free for a long time. After a certain point, when it started to take off, it was difficult to maintain that. It's very hard to curate to a space that you don't know well in advance. And I think watching VR explode out of that tent we had last year really forced us into serious consideration when we decided to build The Ray, which is really a fantastic facility. We've got that venue for five years and it's renewable for much longer, and Kimball Art Center's the same. It's going to greatly affect how we can plan. It's helping us evolve from creating a design for the exhibition that's based on necessity to taking the venue and creatively engaging with it. So, Jamie [Jamie McMurry, New Frontier Producer and Designer] and I are really excited about that.

What are you most proud of at New Frontier?

I think this year it's two things: it's the power of this idea to do this thing at Sundance, and now it has the full support of the Institute and it's working. All the artists are happy. It's always been a struggle before; it's no longer a struggle.

But there's another thing: There's an audience that comes to Park City now that never came before and a lot of them come just for New Frontier. We've got to figure out ways to continue to integrate them into film experiences and bring film people into New Frontier because that's what it was all about to begin with—hybridizing these practices. But it's incredibly gratifying to not only see all of these people coming to the festival for this, but they're coming from an industry that spurted out of this experimental program.

VR and how technology is being embraced by storytellers is something that kind of spurted out with the prototype of the Oculus Rift at the 2012 New Frontier. I'm just floored that the experiment worked. It actually did create a new world. It creates these new worlds in terms of the storytelling, but it created a material business that carries on the spirit of the experiment.

It all came out of this little punk-ass experiment underneath the Main Street Mall across the street from the Egyptian. I really can’t believe that that happened. I’m really proud of that.

New Frontier definitely builds a culture of an embrace of failure. As much as the creators are sweating to bring these things to the fore, a lot of these things are still forming.

With that, Frilot stopped talking. A buzz of activity filled the aural void, reminding us that New Frontier was in full swing one floor above our heads. Staring into the middle distance, Frilot leaned back, a smile breaking out across her face. Her voice dropping to a whisper, she exhaled, “It has to always stay like that, I think.”

Ken Jacobson, a contributing editor at Documentary Magazine, is VR and documentary programmer at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and VR curator and Forum programmer at AFI DOCS Film Festival.