9 MINUTE READ
by Rebekah E. Henderson
This article is part of the Summer 2020 ” Time for Change”‘ print issue’s MUST LIST of shows to watch and songs to hear, artistry, shopping and things to explore, know, and do. This is one of six in this summer’s specially curated list of things we recommend as MUST experience items for the culturally fluid. To see the full list, click here.
Sundance is more than just a film festival founded by Robert Redford in Park City, Utah, in 1985. It has grown into one of the world’s most prestigious events for independent filmmakers and it is an experience. Notably, Sundance 2020 featured the most diverse lineup of films in the festival’s history.
A beautiful, idealized version of what the film world could and should look like, a mosaic of stories told in new and innovative ways. For a person experiencing Sundance for the first time, this year’s festival was a rich, colorful gathering, full of promotional parties, free swag and a variety of programming designed to educate and inspire.
If Rhyan LaMarr, a Chicago based filmmaker, had attended his first Sundance in the early 2000s, he may have gone a long way on Main Street (the heart of the festival) without seeing another Black man. He may have felt out of place on his own like he didn’t belong. If L.A.- based actress Chelsea Harris, who one hundred percent belongs in any room she graces, had decided to take her first trip to Sundance as a child, she wouldn’t have noticed how few female filmmakers were strolling down Main Street, because why would you notice something that wasn’t there?
If a Jamaican-born, Los Angeles-based animator filmmaker like Ruel Smith had bumped into Jade Bryan, a Jamaican-American deaf Black female filmmaker, they might have held hands and promised to stick together for the whole festival. If a group of documentary filmmakers comprised of women and non-binary people of color called the Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM) showed up, they might have been arrested when they tried to set up a meeting with studio executives, distributors and funders.
The experience that the aforementioned people had at Sundance 2020 was thankfully nothing like that due to trailblazing filmmakers who recognized the need for affinity groups and extra support for those that are not part of the “dominant culture.
”The idea of “diversity lounges” at Sundance began when filmmaker Brickson Diamond, producer Carol Ann Shine, and former Chief Diversity Officer for Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Ryan Tarpley, found themselves together in Ellen Huang’s now-defunct “Queer Lounge.”
Shine proposed they create a similar lounge, but for Black people. The sponsored lounges are spaces that host programs and panels. In addition to being a place for people to relax, gather, network, charge their phones and fuel their tanks with snacks and drinks. Many of the events scheduled at these lounges are free and open to the public.
The Blackhouse Foundation (co-founded by Diamond, Shine and Tarpley) became an official sponsor at Sundance in 2007.
Creating the space sent a message that encouraged Blackerati like Eddie Murphy, P-Diddy and 3-6 Mafia to attend.
Over the years, lounges created safe havens and networking spaces for filmmakers from a variety of backgrounds. Macro Lodge is another hot spot for filmmakers of color. This year was the first time Latinx House opened its doors.
SUNDANCE 2020 WAS A MAGICAL EXPERIENCE FOR FILMMAKERS OF COLOR
It was pure Black and Brown Magic. And Asian Magic. And Indigenous Magic. And of course, movie magic. For many in attendance, Sundance isn’t only about the films. The connections made simply by walking down Main Street or stopping to get ice cream are key to having a bonafide Sundance experience. Smith doesn’t know why he wanted ice cream in such cold weather, but the chit chat he made with the filmmaker in front of him turned into saved seats, passes to waitlisted films and friendship.
Smith has had a highly successful career in animation and digital effects, working on films like “Captain Marvel,” “Black Panther” and “The Jungle Book.” Sundance 2020 was his second time at the festival. When he first attended in 2018, he recalled running from screening to screening.
This year, with his goal of directing his first feature in 2020, he decided to give himself more time to check out the lounges and glean as much knowledge as possible. It’s easy to talk to people at Sundance. It isn’t the high-pressure environment of Hollywood or New York. Most people are highly approachable, which can result in meaningful personal and professional connections. Smith noted, “We’re all just filmmakers, having a conversation.
”LaMarr was hesitant in years past to attend Sundance “without being invited” or having a film in the festival. LaMarr was attending to support a producing partner whose film was premiering — the highly anticipated Tesla.
LaMarr compared his first Sundance experience to being in college, an eager kid with a backpack ready to learn and then get out into the world to create. In a quintessential Sundance story, LaMarr recounted that he wasn’t sure how, but he found himself at a private networking house party full of lawyers, which reminded him of the many facets of the film industry and the importance of networking.
Affinity lounges and the sponsors who invest in them have helped change the social and cultural fabric of Sundance in a beautiful way.
Blackhouse is more than a lounge; it’s a community. When tragic news came that basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter had died in a helicopter crash, LaMarr was in the Blackhouse watching a panel discussion.
The bad news rippled through the crowded room. Heads came together as people remained respectful of the speakers, while also praying it was a hoax. The death of a Black icon when so many Black people were having one of the best experiences of their lives was jarring.
LaMarr, Smith and actor Chelsea Harris (“Star Trek: Picard,” “Snowpiercer,” “Top Gun: Maverick”) were grateful to be in Black spaces to help process the loss.
Kobe’s untimely death, reminding us that tomorrow is not promised, will undoubtedly inspire many to take concrete steps to pursue their dreams. Harris spent most of her Sundance experience at Women in Film events.
The panels and discussions helped her to realize that writing, directing and producing her own projects could easily become a reality. She is currently co-writing a series and co-writing a book now that she’s back in L.A.
KEEPING CREATIVITY ALIVE
Even without a shared grief experience, Sundance has a way of revving up creative juices, and keeping artists focused on their creative journeys, by any means necessary. Jade Bryan is one such fighter. She attended Sundance for the first time in 2014. In 2019 she asked a revolutionary question. What would it take for the film industry to allow Deaf people to tell their own stories?
Bryan is fighting for her seat at the table and it seems that 2020 could be her year. She has a secret project that is currently in negotiations. Bryan is not afraid to be the first; her intersecting identities; deaf, Black, woman, and child of immigrants have helped shape her art and vision. She wants to see more than a handful of deaf actors given token roles.
Its mission is to tackle inequity in the industry by providing community, resources, learning opportunities and “nourishing creative brilliance.” NYC-based Filmmaker Tanya Perez “straight up cried” when she went into Latinx house for the first time.
She is a proud member of BGDM and was thrilled to engage with executives who interacted with BGDM members, regardless of whether they had a film in the festival. Toni Kamau, a Kenya-based independent film producer and active member of BGDM, was elated to see her film Softie premiere at Sundance this year. The film received a special jury prize for editing.
Kamau observed a marked increase in representation since her first Sundance experience in 2017, and BGDM’s networking events with CNN, HBO and Netflix were the cherries on top of a sweet Sundance. Celene Beth Calderon hails from Park City and has been involved with Sundance for the past five years as a volunteer, filmmaker and staff member.
She also belongs to BGDM. Calderon is pleased with the representation of people of color overall at Sundance but would like to see an increase in Latinx representation in programming and content. Like Perez, Calderon sees the addition of Latinx House as a sign that more opportunities are well on their way.
Cat Gund, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, is well aware of the need for more women in film. Providing tools and support to women, particularly women of color, is essential to growing and improving the documentary and narrative film field. Gund’ says her non-profit, Aubin pictures, offers “mentorship, network building, and skills development to bring in and support traditionally marginalized people.”Vatsala Goel is co-Director of Photography for Cat Gund’s “Aggie,” which premiered at Sundance.
She was pleased to note the number of organizations (including BGDM) dedicated to making space and ensuring that filmmakers of color are seen, heard and featured at Sundance. There are more barriers to be lifted, but the value of attending Sundance for filmmakers of color can’t be denied. Filmmakers leave inspired, uplifted, and ready to make magic.