Sundance panels examine race, culture and diversity
Discussions held at the Filmmaker Lodge
January 24, 2017
During the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's first day press conference last week, Sundance Institute Founder & CEO Robert Redford said documentary films are vital in this day and age than they ever were.
"I think documentaries have become more and more important as the news media has shrunk into a sound-byte world," he said. "They have become more like long-form journalism, and they give a chance to really tell the story so the public has time to digest it."
Redford also said the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival stay away from politics in order to stay focused on the stories that are told by independent filmmakers.
Over the past weekend, two Sundance Film Festival panels held at the Filmmaker Lodge addressed those ideas.
The first, titled "Independent Filmmakers and Public Media: Telling America's Stories," presented by PBS and WNET New York, was held on Saturday, and featured a panel of documentary film directors— Yance Ford (“Strong Island"), Barak Goodman (“Oklahoma City"), Pete Nicks ("The Force") and Jeffrey Palmer ("Words From a Bear: The Enigmatic Life of M. Scott Momaday") — and producer Cyndee Readdean ("Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities").
All, with the exception of Palmer, have their films in this year's festival.
The panel, which was moderated by Cara Mertes, director of JustFilms and the Ford Foundation, discussed how the United States' present situation is fertile ground for documentary filmmakers to take on projects of stories that help educate and enlighten all sides of the racial and cultural divide.
The second panel, "Storytelling Unbound," was held on Sunday.
Panelists included director Miguel Arteta ("Beatriz at Dinner"), Academy Award-winning actress and activist Geena Davis, MACRO CEO Charles D. King, writer and director Danny Strong ("Rebel in the Rye") and Christian Gabela, vice president and general manager of Univision Story House.
Former Executive Director of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau Vicangelo Bulluck served as moderator as the panel examined and discussed the importance of diverse storytelling.
Using documentary films to bridge gaps
During "Independent Filmmakers and Public Media: Telling America's Stories," the documentarians focused on different observations regarding the country's climate before and in the wake of the presidential election.
Goodman said the divide of the nation today isn't as dire as it was during the Civil War and the Vietnam War, but it appears to be because people are able to exploit the divide of race and culture through social media.
"I think that's happening and accelerating and that's what's most alarming," Goodman said. "Where we come in as the media is with the ability to provide people with real facts, real reporting and old-fashioned journalism."
Readdean feels differently.
"I do think America is divided, but I think it has been for long time," Readdean said. "I sort of feel like the media is revealing it. I feel like the lid has been taken off and the racists feel like they can speak out.
"I'm kind of afraid," she added. "I live in Manhattan and feel kind of safe there, but even walking on the street, now, I'm looking out a little bit more to see who is across the street or who is walking by me."
This is why documentaries need to be made, said Nicks.
While he agreed that there was a divide, he said he has been "heartened" as a storyteller through discussions he has with people during his projects.
"The individual conversations are always more profound and meaningful than the conversations I have in the collective space that is populated by people who may be able to circle an ideology," he said. "I think when people get into a collective space, it's much harder to speak out. I think dialogue is incredibly important to healing some of these divisions that are occurring.
The time is now for diverse programming
"Storytelling Unbound" focused on authentic storytelling, especially when it comes to minorities in race and gender roles as well as other aspects in the entertainment industry.
The panel emphasized that programming needs to change with the evolving reality of the nation's and the world's demographics.
Davis, who is founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media a research-based organization that works within the media and entertainment industry to reduce gender stereotyping, noticed the lack of female characters in shows geared towards pre-teens.
"When my daughter was a toddler and I started watching pre-school shows and G-rated videos, I was floored to immediately see there were far fewer female characters than male characters in what was made for little kids in the 21st century."
Davis casually mentioned this to some of the people she knew in the industry.
"Everyone of them said, 'That's not true anymore,' and they were very sincere," she said.
The problem was these people would name a film that had one strong female character to claim that gender inequality had been fixed.
So, Davis decided to sponsor a research study of children's TV and movies 10 years ago and has been giving short presentations to entertainment administrators.
"They are actually horrified, because they want to do well by kids," she said. "We have yet to leave a meeting where somebody doesn't say 'You have changed my project' or 'You have changed several of my projects.'"
The panel also addressed the misconception that someone has to be of a certain race or creed to write and produce a program about minorities.
Danny Strong, who is caucasian, is known for his work in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The Gilmore Girls." He is also the co-creator with Lee Daniels of the hit TV show "Empire," which is about an African American hip-hop mogul whose family — three sons and an ex wife — battle for control of the company.
"I have a different perspective of authenticity," he said. "I am probably one of the most inauthentic persons because I have no background in politics. I'm not African American, but I have written some African America projects.
"That has actually bothered some people I've worked with very closely," Strong said. "But my approach has not been from my own life experiences. It's all just stuff I'm interested in and passionate about."
He does a lot of research, writes the project up and takes it to people who have background in the fields he wrote about and asked them to help fix what was wrong with the script.
"'Empire' is a hip-hop musical based on 'King Lear' that attacks homophobia," Strong said. "I didn’t know much about hip-hop, but I was driving in my car in L.A. and there was a news story about this huge deal that [Sean] Puffy [Combs] just closed and I thought, 'hip-hop is so cool. I should do something in hip-hop because it's so cool.'"