For most film lovers the name Sundance primarily means one thing — the annual film festival in Park City, Utah, which will be celebrating its 37th anniversary next January. But the film festival is only one of the Sundance Institute’s many initiatives in support of independent filmmakers, theater artists and storytellers. One of the more non-traditional and innovative offshoots is Sundance Film Forward, which is committed to fostering cross-cultural dialogue among younger audiences between the ages of 18-24. And this year Atlanta and Macon are among the showcase cities participating in the traveling tour, which is scheduled for March 28-31.
The featured presenters include director Prashant Nair and producer Swati Shetty representing their film Umrika (2015) and Mimi Valdes, producer of the film festival favorite, Dope (2015). Free screenings of the films followed by informal Q&A discussions with the filmmakers are scheduled at various venues.
Film Forward manager Bethany Clarke explains that the goal of the organization is to use independent film to connect and engage younger viewers with issues and ideas that are reflective of a larger global community. The target audiences, however, are not necessarily film school students. “Last year we had a documentary in our program about the Arab Spring [Greg Barker’s We Are the Giant], and that film was seen by political science students who were able to speak with the filmmaker about the experience of trying to capture those events and what it was like to deal with those revolutionaries,” says Clarke. “So we are very interested in conversations outside of filmmaking as well.”
Each year Sundance Film Forward reviews a number of U.S. and international documentary features and narrative fiction films and narrows them down to a short list of about 10 movies they feel will resonate with younger viewers. Gabe Wardell and his business partner Paula Martinez, who manage the annual 48 Hour Film Project in Atlanta and program for other venues like DecaturDocs, were instrumental in facilitating the organization’s first visit to Atlanta and selecting Umrika and Dope as two films which should be particularly relevant for the city’s multicultural communities. [Full disclosure: Wardell is an ArtsATL contributor.]
“Dope is a film that I’ve heard more people say that they wanted to see but didn’t get to see,” Wardell says. “It had high awareness but then did very mediocre theatrical business based on what the expectations were.”
According to Wardell, it is a mistaken assumption that indie films like Dope and Umrika will do well in art house bookings such as the Landmark Theater chain. “The art house audience skews older,” he says. “They tend to appeal to the NPR crowd and older demographic. Indie films that are not crossing over, particularly African-American themed, are in a very precarious position regarding their ability to earn money. Dope didn’t play well in urban markets and kind of got lost in the multiplex; it wasn’t nurtured by the art houses either.”
Many film critics feel that Dope gives a refreshingly different and playful, high-spirited spin to its story of three high school nerds who get caught up in the drug dealer culture of their rough Los Angeles neighborhood. “I think the story of trying to navigate the challenges of the hood is the same regardless of gender,” says producer Mimi Valdes. “The most important takeaway from the film is that your environment doesn’t define who you are.”
The other film that Wardell believes deserves a wider audience is Umrika, which was overlooked during its initial release and is particularly topical due to the storyline: A young man from a small village in India tries to contact his older brother who left for the U.S. and became rich and successful.
The lead is played by Suraj Sharma who previously appeared in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Million Dollar Arm, the filmed-in-Atlanta baseball drama. “We’re in such an interesting time right now politically and socially,” Wardell says. “The issues of immigration and the expectations of people coming to America couldn’t be more timely. I think an American audience can learn a lot from a film like this and want to engage and be part of a larger conversation.”
Umrika can be seen as both an idealization of the American dream and a critique of it. The film’s open ending is certain to generate diverse interpretations. Prashant Nair, the director, confirmed the film’s contrasting duality in a Sundance interview last year. “We all have two Americas, the one we actually live in, and the one we construct through pop culture, music, and so on,” he said. “That’s a very classic theme, of America being a myth and a dream … India may be growing as an economic power with more opportunities than ever, but I think many people still see America as the place to make a future.”
Clarke stresses that younger audiences aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits of the Sundance program. It’s also an invaluable experience for the touring filmmakers who usually exhibit their work at film festivals to more film savvy audiences. “They don’t often have an opportunity to go into a university or college and screen their film in a community center with young people,” she says. “We’ve had more than one filmmaker tell us that they saw their film in a new light after screening for these younger audiences. Also, young people are a lot more candid about their first thoughts and impressions which I think is refreshing.”