There is perhaps no greater marketplace for American cinema than the Sundance Film Festival. Established in 1983 by screen icon Robert Redford, the annual event takes place over a two-week period in Park City, Utah, where it attracts some of the best filmmakers from around the world.
Each year the festival receives over 4,000 submissions from established and emerging filmmakers seeking the opportunity to showcase their work to the festival’s audience of big studio execs and distributors. As a senior programmer for Sundance, and curator of its innovative New Frontiers Program, Shari Frilot stands at the center of all the action, playing a decisive role in determining which filmmakers receive a screening slot at the festival.
In an EBONY.com exclusive, Frilot walks us through the festival, explaining why it provides excellent entry for African-American filmmakers trying to break into the Hollywood big leagues.
EBONY: The Sundance Film Festival is an enormous undertaking. What type of work goes into putting the festival together?
Shari Frilot: A lot of time and effort goes into planning each year’s festival. I work full-time part of the year and quarter-time during most of the rest of the year. It’s a job where you can’t really ever take off your hat. I’ve been a programmer at the festival since 1998, which means that I sit on a team of programmers who program the festival collectively. I lead the group that establishes the American narrative slate.
Alongside three other programmers, we determine which American narrative films are going to be discussed within the larger group for consideration at the festival. I watch about 500 films, all of the documentary films that are suggested by our documentary team, and work it out with everyone to decide what films we will make our final slate.
EBONY: What things do you look for in selecting films for the festival?
SF: We pride ourselves on being a discovery festival, which is a mission that I take to heart. One of the things that my team members and I respond to are points of originality in terms of a film’s voice, subject matter or performances. .We select the kind of films that will spark popular dialogue that is well-suited for the Sundance. Ultimately, we are looking for stories that work in deep, sensuous, biochemical ways and define how we see ourselves, how we see the world and how we imagine our future. I love storytellers who push me beyond what I know and encourage me to see differently. I am looking for filmmakers who are on top of their craft and very clear in their vision in a courageous way. In other words, they trust their voice and are focused on creating work that is entertaining and transformative.
EBONY: As the most prominent African-American with the festival, what is Sundance doing to attract more minority filmmakers to the festival?
SF: We are interested in building new things and expanding access with respect to the diversity of our cultural offerings. I want to continue to build and strengthen roads between filmmakers blessed with the talent and vision to tell vital stories we need as an American people. Building roads of access to those films is important to our festival, and I certainly make it one of my priorities to encourage conversations about projects that reflect the various voices in our society.
We have seen a jump in Black films in terms of the quality and the amount being submitted. I feel that we can get more films from people of color and women, which is very exciting. It’s not just about one voice coming out, but multiple ones in our feature films and documentary categories. I know it’s not easy to get to our festival, but it’s important that all filmmakers make an effort to attend because of the tremendous opportunity Sundance offers. The demographics of our country are changing and Sundance is in a unique place to platform films from diverse filmmakers.
EBONY: So what are the notable African-American films scheduled to play at the festival this year?
SF: We have some great selections this year that include Mother of George, which was wonderfully shot by Andrew Dosunmu and whose last project, Restless City, was released by AAFRM. Another selection that features some glistening performances is Fruitvale, by Ryan Coogler, which is about the Oscar Grant shooting incident in Oakland, California. Filmmaker George Tillman will have a film at our festival called The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, and American Promise by [Joe Brewster and] Michèle Stephenson is a documentary that people should make an effort to see. Please visit our website at www.sundance.org for schedule times and dates.
Gil Robertson IV is a noted A&E and Black lifestyle journalist, author and producer. President and co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), he resides in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Follow the AAFCA on Twitter @theaafca.