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Sundance Ignite: Opening Doors for Creative Young Filmmakers

By Melody Yuan

Jan. 27, 2020
(Photo credit): Sundance Institute

Sundance Film Festival’s unique fellows program brings new talent to the surface.

Ethan Hawke, Nanfu Wang, Rodrigo Garcia, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Isabella Rossellini are among the judges listed for 2020’s Sundance Film Festival. With 118 feature-length films selected to show, the jury has its work cut out for them. The Sundance Institute’s flagship festival is regarded as the largest American independent film festival and attracts more than 120,000 people every year. In 2020, there was a record-high total of 15,100 submissions, with many of them hailing from different countries and colorful backgrounds. Of the 118 feature-length films that were chosen, 44 of them were made by first-time feature filmmakers, and 46 percent of the directors in all four competition categories were women. These numbers are in stark contrast to the recent announcement of the 92nd Academy Awards nominations, which received criticism for the lack of diversity.

“Our 2020 festival’s lively and visionary crop of artists has a contagious passion, and I can’t wait to watch the world meet their work,” said John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival, in a statement. The 2020 festival theme, according to the Sundance Institute’s executive director, Keri Putnam, is centered around “imagined futures” and gives directors the freedom to showcase unique perspectives.

(Photo credit): Sundance Institute

The core of Sundance’s mission and identity is straightforward: discovering and supporting independent storytellers from underrepresented communities to help advance the impact of their work in the world. From this vision, the Institute began its influential fellows program in 2015 called Sundance Ignite, of which East West Bank is a proud supporter.

Sundance Ignite as a launch pad for new voices

“Sundance Ignite is an artist development program that helps emerging filmmakers aged 18 to 25 both artistically and professionally. This program really helps young filmmakers get to the next stage in their career and in their craft,” says Meredith Lavitt, director of Sundance Ignite.

Teamed with Adobe, Sundance Ignite invites applicants to submit a short film, up to 15 minutes long, that features their artistic talent and voice. Though competitive, the benefits of becoming a part of Sundance Ignite are apparent.

In addition to gaining exposure as a young voice in the film industry, young and aspiring Sundance Ignite fellows get matched with mentors who are prominent in the film industry and also program alumni. The yearlong Ignite fellowship begins in Los Angeles with a weeklong lab that also serves as the program orientation. As the year continues, participants work alongside and gain feedback from their mentors, receive an artist grant, attend the Sundance Film Festival and become eligible for internships and other program opportunities.

(Photo credit): Sundance Institute
“Sundance Ignite is an artist development program that helps emerging filmmakers aged 18 to 25 both artistically and professionally. This program really helps young filmmakers get to the next stage in their career and in their craft."

-Meredith Lavitt

Igniting a path forward for young talent

“I first heard about Sundance Ignite through friends from New York University (NYU), where I studied film,” says Kira Dane, one of the program participants in 2019. “There are many [alumni] who have participated in the program, and I had heard that they had really good experiences there.”

Dane, who has now directed a number of films from animations to documentaries, was selected from a pool of more than 1,200 applicants to be one of 15 fellows in the class of 2019. As a half-Japanese native New Yorker, Dane incorporates her heritage into her nuanced stories. Her documentary short film, “Sayu Sayuri,” features a Japanese woman and her half-Cuban, half-Japanese daughter trying to build their identities in Havana. Her most recent animated short documentary, titled “Mizuko,” was winner of the Tribeca If/Then Short Documentary Program and features stunning artwork.

“The unstable nature of the film industry can be really isolating,” says Dane. “I think for a lot of people, this is felt most after graduating from college, when you have no structural support and haven’t carved out your own direction or purpose yet. So, when I got to be part of the Ignite program, two years after graduating from NYU, it was the perfect boost because I was at a point where I was really questioning my feasibility of pursuing film, and Sundance gave me both the confidence and the guidance to keep at it.”

Paying it forward as a Sundance Ignite mentor

Another program alumnus from the 2017 class, Leah Galant, echoes the same sentiment as Dane.

“I’m excited to be a part of this larger community that really wants me to succeed and continue making projects,” she says. In 2019, she also became a Film Independent Documentary Lab Fellow. Galant, who specializes in social justice documentaries, says she was inspired by her Sundance mentor, Jeff Orlowski, who helped her set goals and provided advice on moving forward with documentary projects. She was also thrilled to meet her idol and Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple—director of such films as “Havoc” and “American Dream”—at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

For Maya Cueva, who is also part of the 2019 class, the mentorship program was one of the strongest draws of the program. “We got to meet with our mentors as often as we’d like to, got on phone conversations, and they helped us with anything, from pitching movie concepts, to how to start applying for grants,” she says.

Dane believes that the mentorship experience has been incredibly positive and regularly stays in touch with her mentor. “The program just ended for me at the end of 2019, but I still send cuts of my film to my mentor, who’ll always give really helpful critiques,” she says.

Orlowski, who is best known for directing and producing Emmy Award-winning documentaries “Chasing Ice” (2012) and “Chasing Coral” (2017), has been an active Sundance Ignite mentor for a few years now.

“It’s a really fun opportunity for us to work with emerging talent and to help them get their projects out into the world,” Orlowski says.

The future for Ignite Program participants

What happens when the fellowship ends after a year? For many of the participants, filmmaking continues to be a fundamental part of their career. Students turn into alumni with more knowledge, experience and a stronger network within the filmmaking community. The alumni, in turn, eventually become Sundance Ignite mentors to support future generations of young potential filmmakers.

Since becoming a mentor at Sundance Ignite, Orlowski has gone on to start his own production company, Exposure Labs, geared toward socially relevant filmmaking. After concluding her Sundance Ignite fellowship program, Dane has received international attention as a filmmaker. “I just finished ‘Mizuko,’ a short animated documentary that’s doing really well in its festival run, with a world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and a North American premiere coming up at a really great festival that I can’t disclose just yet,” says Dane.

Cueva’s work has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Latino USA, The Atlantic and National Geographic, among other prominent outlets. Her short documentary, “The Provider,” which she directed with Galant, has also been screened widely at festivals, from SXSW to Norway’s International Youth Film Festival Langesund.

Galant has continued to build her filmmaking portfolio and is currently in production on a film about the last abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley community of McAllen, Texas. The film, which she is again directing with Cueva, is supported by the Gucci Tribeca Film Fund, Film Independent and Sundance Institute.

As for Dane, she says, “I hope to use this momentum to keep making experimental or animated documentaries that push the boundaries of traditional documentaries. My biggest goal is to make my first feature.”

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