Sundance panel discusses building movements through film but takes an unexpected turn |

Sundance panel discusses building movements through film but takes an unexpected turn

From left: Sonya Childress, the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Sue Obeidi and Peace Is Loud’s Jamie Dobie listen as Darcy Heusel, NEON’s vice president of audience management and impact, speaks about what kinds of strategies can be used to ensure a film that addresses social issues can make the largest cultural impact possible during the Sundance panel “Impact Nuts (and Bolts): Marketing, Movement Building and Meaningful Representation.”
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

Sundance Film Festival’s “Impact Nuts (and Bolts): Marketing, Movement Building and Meaningful Representation” panel and workshop held Monday at the Kimball Art Center started out on topic but took an unexpected turn.

Audience member Hermon Farahi, who was a co-producer of the 2019 Sundance documentary “Knock Down the House,” stood up during the middle of the panel and gave an emotional speech spurred by a clip of Adam Zucker’s “American Muslim,” a documentary in this year’s festival that follows five American Muslims living in New York City in the wake of the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Coincidentally, Monday was the third anniversary of the executive order that restricts immigration to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Farahi, whose father was from Iran and mother from South Korea, talked about why he decided to run for Congress in 2018 and how he got involved with “Knock Down the House,” which followed the congressional campaigns of four female Democrats — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin.

“At a time when we lost my father, the travel ban gets instituted, and my family members from Iran can’t even come here to visit to give their respects,” he said.

Farahi said the grief he felt pushed him to run for the Democratic nomination in Nevada’s third congressional district.

“I organized in my community, getting people around films, to have discussions,” he said.

After realizing he wouldn’t go far with his campaign if he didn’t have money, political connections or the cultural and social capital, Farahi made his own change.

“I put down the campaign and picked up the camera, thanks to (“Knock Down the House” director)Rachel Lears and an amazing team,” he said. “They empowered me to help tell that story. That work translated on screen into an Oscar-contending film and changed the world in many ways.”

Farahi ended his speech by saying, “This is all connected, and these are all great discussions to have, maybe at another panel.”

After Farahi talked, the panel, which moderator Sonya Childress indicated was going to “pull back the veil on what it looks like to try to make change using art and, specifically film, as a tool,” began.

While there wasn’t enough time for the panelists — Sue Obeidi from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC); Jamie Dobie from the nonprofit Peace is Loud; and Darcy Heusel, vice president of audience engagement and impact of NEON, a production and distribution company — to fully cover the panel’s main topics of cultural representation, movement building and targeted film marketing, they still managed to cover most of the issues.

The panelists used “American Muslim” as a way to show how each of their respective entities works to help films have cultural impact by inspiring filmgoers to take action regarding the issues raised in films.

The workshop also examined three distinct approaches of how film can be used to make cultural changes that Childress outlined at the beginning of the discussion.

The first was the traditional way of connecting a film with an organized movement or grassroots organizations. The second way is to galvanize the power of representation to change a narrative about a particular issue and community. And the third is to maximize the visibility of a film so it can deliver its message to a large audience.

Zucker, the director of “American Muslim,” also spoke during the discussion.

The filmmaker, who is Jewish, said he started working on the film Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president.

“I was really horrified, and I knew I needed to do something,” he said. “I also knew I wasn’t on the frontline, but as a religious minority, I certainly related to and horrified by what was happening to another community in this country.”

Zucker wanted to make a film about what it is like being Muslim during the Trump administration.

When the travel ban was issued on Jan. 27, 2017, Zucker knew he had to make the film quickly, and he did it without any initial backers.

“The film became a story about five very diverse individuals,” Zucker said. “The people in my film are all U.S. citizens, who had once all been immigrants.”

The filmmaker said he is finally making “impact” partnerships and relationships that adhere to what the panel was about, and is now able to show the film to more people.

“When I show the film, whether it’s to Muslim audiences or non-Muslim audiences, what I get a lot of is they really feel like it opened the window to a world they knew nothing about,” he said. “That was actually what my goal is.”

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