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Sundance Ignite Fellowship For Emerging Directors: 2020 Could Be Your Year After All

COW Library : Film Festivals : Tim Wilson : Sundance Ignite Fellowship For Emerging Directors: 2020 Could Be Your Year After All
CreativeCOW presents Sundance Ignite Fellowship For Emerging Directors: 2020 Could Be Your Year After All -- Film Festivals
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Nobody knows how the rest of 2020 and beyond will shape filmmaking and film festivals, but there’s no need for young filmmakers to put their careers on hold. The Sundance Institute and Adobe are looking for 10 documentary or narrative directors between the ages of 18 and 25 who’ve completed a short between one and 15 minutes long any time since August 2018 to receive Sundance Ignite fellowships as part of a year-long program that includes mentorship, artist grants, internships and program opportunities, an annual membership to Adobe Creative Cloud, and a trip to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

There’s no question that some of these opportunities will be somewhat reshaped by the unfolding events of 2020. Sundance has already announced that over 50 programs between now and August will be reimagined in ways yet to be determined. Hosting many of them online is an obvious start, of course. The first of the rescheduled events in late March 2020 was a workshop on making and launching a short film, slated for 120 people in San Jose, CA. Instead, it became an international online event with more than 1600 people attending. For filmmakers trying to reach audiences, that's a remarkable upside for Plan B.

As a result of all this, the 2020 application deadline for Sundance Ignite has been extended until March 31 at 2PM PST, and honestly, you’ve already read most of the rules. The rest of them are here. Don’t sweat the late date, either. The application will take you just a few minutes to complete, and films are submitted via upload direct to Sundance’s site, or a YouTube or Vimeo link. It’s that easy.

(The 1400+ films already submitted are also viewable by anyone who cares to take a look at the link above.)

Regardless of the specific form that the mentorship programs and other opportunities will take later this year, there’s no question that the Sundance Ignite program has already changed lives. Since launching with Adobe’s partnership in 2015, Sundance Ignite has sponsored 68 fellows, with eight alumni having had their films selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2020 alone, four Ignite alumni debuted films at the fest, including 2019 Ignite Fellow Lance Oppenheim, whose film "Some Kind of Heaven" is the first feature film by an Ignite Fellow to play Sundance.

The other Ignite alums at Sundance 2020 were Terrance Day (“-Ship”), Crystal Kayiza (“See You Next Time”), and Matthew Puccini (“Dirty”), the latter two of whom are actually returning for their second showings at Sundance.

Mentioning four filmmakers in two sentences doesn’t begin to describe the impact that Sundance Ignite Fellowships have had on these directors’ lives and careers, which is why we’re not going to stop there. We spoke to all four about the specifics of their Ignite experience and the new paths that they’re on today as a result.

Even if you’re not a candidate for the program, you’ll find yourself reminded by the experiences of these four very different directors of the passions that brought you to filmmaking, and keep you here through the struggles.

And of course, if you’re between 18-25 with a film in the can, hopefully inspire you to apply for a Sundance Ignite Fellowship for yourself, and maybe not struggle as hard or as alone.

Perhaps the single biggest impression Lance had of the filmmaking experience before Ignite is that there aren’t an enormous range of institutions, structures, or other resources supporting young directors. “As soon as I heard that Sundance had a program of some sort that was doing just that, I literally ran to my computer and submitted nearly everything I had ever made.”

Lance admitted that the project he was hoping he’d find help for through the Ignite fellowship was far from finished. “During my Ignite Fellowship in 2019, I arrived to Sundance with about two shooting trips’ worth material (50-60 hours or so) and no real cogent thesis. The material was scattered, like a bunch of different ingredients floating around in a pan without an emulsifier.” The mentor that Sundance matched him with, Jeff Orlowski ("Chasing Coral," "The Social Dilemma"), helped shape the material and drove Lance to dig deeper, but Lance also found help from other members of the program. “I shared endless cuts with them,” he says, “and I found a great deal of support from a warm and tight-knit crew of talented filmmakers.”

Lance’s feature debut, “Some Kind of Heaven” is a documentary about The Villages, a retirement community in South Florida that deliberately evokes a fantasy American yesteryear. Once he got past the obvious stereotypes, he found people who, far from settling down, were still looking for love and fulfillment in ways that he found deeply relatable.

Lance edited “Some Kind of Heaven” with Adobe Premiere, and it played during the Adobe-sponsored NEXT program of the festival, which Sundance describes as “Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.”

“For most of my childhood,” says Lance, “The Villages fascinated me. Growing up in South Florida, a few hours’ drive away from the development, salacious tales from the 'Disneyworld for Retirees' found its way into my local newspaper, sensationalizing the community’s “hedonistic” residents. As my previous films have explored how people create homes in unconventional places and spaces, The Villages, a themed development designed to simulate the American yesteryear, appeared to be an ideal subject.

“I knew I didn’t just want to observe life in The Villages from afar, I wanted to embed myself into the social fabric of the place. For nearly thirty days, I lived in a rented room in The Villages with retired rodeo clowns and tried my best at living the local lifestyle. With the help of my new hosts (who introduced me to their friends and gave me the lay of the land) I fashioned a busy daily schedule of pickleball, shuffleboard, Zumba, and acting club.

“My initial interest in The Villages—its make-believe history, manically optimistic media, and picture-perfect grooming— soon shifted as I got to know residents at odds with the community’s ethos. Why did some people struggle to find their place inside of this fantasy world?

“Despite being three generations removed and almost fifty years younger than many Villagers, I was surprised at how relatable I found many Villagers’ pursuits. Their attempts to find connection, love and meaning were not so dissimilar from my own. In the popular imagination, the elderly transcend their youthful passions to lead placid lives, informed by hard-won wisdom. That may be true for some people, but that stereotype ignores the reality for most older people (especially those in this film!)—who are no less crazy, or complicated, or full of desire than anyone else. It is my hope that this film speaks to the idea that even in life’s final chapters, conflicts often go unresolved, desires persist, and the search for fulfillment continues.”

Some Kind of Heaven

Jeff Orlowski’s guidance during Lance’s Ignite Fellowship reached passed the basics of constructing the film. “Meeting Jeff was a big game-changer for me,” he says. “I was dealing with a deeply challenging creative process as well as the business side of things (raising funds etc.), and Jeff’s words of wisdom proved to be extremely helpful in getting the film off the ground.

“My experience with the program itself went above and beyond my already high expectations. I came to Ignite with a half baked idea that ended up developing into a feature-length film, and I can confidently say that the project would not be the same without the creative support of the program’s brain-trust.”

“I attended the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and remember sitting in the seats right before a screening and promising myself, ‘You’re going to be here someday’, says Terrance Day, and indeed he arrived. Let the record show that his film’s title is pronounced “HYPHEN ship”, and that it won the prestigious Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction at Sundance 2020. It follows a black boy on the day of his cousin’s funeral as he learns contradictory lessons about masculinity.

Terrance’s trip was a long time coming. He’d been invited the year before by a professor in his graduate program at NYU who had a film at the festival, but he didn’t have the money to attend. “Sundance paying for my trip a year later through Ignite and allowing me to have a complete and stress-free experience, made it possible for me to see myself screening there. To envision myself in the rooms, on the stages. It’s one thing to hear about the Film Festival, but it’s another thing to experience it. We were treated like special guests.”

He felt the power of that invitation from the moment he heard that he’d been accepted as an Ignite Fellow. “Really, I was shocked, and then moved, when I got the call. It felt like being picked or feeling seen for the first time. Ignite connected me with filmmakers whose work I admired and who I thought I could learn something from. They supported me by providing connections with industry mentors, organizations like EFilm, and creating opportunities for me to pitch and further develop my work among equally talented and passionate peers.

“I don’t think I would have known how to make my dreams actionable if not for that opportunity. I began making contacts, fostering those relationships and closing the divide between myself and the idea of ‘Hollywood’ that I had in my head. Once I realized how accessible things could be when you just asked, I gained more confidence to ask for what I needed instead of waiting for it or feeling too far removed from it.”

Terrance took that confidence back with him to NYU, where he went to make a short film called “Cherish” in the spring of 2018. A week-long Ignite retreat in Los Angeles that summer expanded his connections and confidence. “I left that experience motivated to work even harder. Iound a job that same summer in a writer’s room in LA, and started to develop a short film on the side which would later become “-Ship: A Visual Poem.”

-Ship: A Tone Poem by Terrance Day, Sundance Ignite Fellowship sponsored by Adobe

He wrote and directed the film by the end of the year, also handling editing and grading. Terrance screened it at NYU as his second-year film project, where the audience included fellow Ignite alum Crystal Kayiza. She strongly recommended that he submit it for entry to the Sundance Film Festival (“STRONGLY”, he emphasizes), but knew that once again, he didn’t have the money and wasn’t sure he would in time. “But then at the last minute a friend reached out asking if they could make a late contribution to the film. Nobody but God! We applied the night before the early deadline in the summer of 2019 and then I got the call in November 2019 that my film was accepted into the 2020 Sundance Film Festival!” Where, again, it won a highly prestigious award.

And it all began with his Ignite Fellowship. “I’d received lots of positive validation from family and friends and even some institutions for my writing and my work in the past, but Ignite really seemed invested and interested in me as a person and the career that I was trying to build for myself,” says Terrance.

"That was very special to me," he continues. "You never know when you sign up for these online competitions: Will they really watch and engage with the work? Is it really going to be everything they’re saying it will be? I think I braced myself for some disappointment in the beginning. But then Ignite showed up and showed out. The program went above and beyond my expectations to prove to me that not only could I have a career in this industry but that my voice was a necessary addition to it. I made friends among my cohort who have continued to support and uplift me, and the access and resources they provided are still opening doors for me to this day.”

Daughter of Ugandan immigrants to New York and who later migrated to Oklahoma, Crystal’s migration took her back to New York, where her success coming out of the 2018 Sundance Ignite program has allowed her to pursue filmmaking full time. Her first trip to Sundance as a director was in 2019 with the documentary, “Edgecombe.” a short documentary examining the ways trauma repeats and reinvents itself in a rural Black community in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. After playing at Sundance, the film was acquired for distribution by the PBS series POV.

Crystal Kayiza, Sundance Ignite Fellowship
Crystal Kayiza

Crystal’s 2020 Sundance entry is “See You Next Time”, a short documentary that captures the intimate moments between a Chinese nail tech and her Black client in a Brooklyn nail salon. It reaches across the nail salon table for a nuanced look into how two women of color see each other in a space unlike anything else in their worlds.

“See You Next Time” also won the grand prize in’s “Telling Our Stories” short film competition, presented by WrapWomen and Starz. The competition “focuses on female-made nonfiction films that highlight themes relevant to womanhood,” and includes a showcase on Starz for all six finalists in addition to Crystal’s $10,000 grand prize.

Highlighting relevant themes related to communities is at the heart of what has drawn Crystal to documentaries. As she wrote in an essay for Sundance, "Imagining a World Where Your Voice and Storytelling Belong", “I focus on trying to reimagine how to tell more nuanced narratives within the African diaspora, whether that’s exploring intergenerational trauma in the Black historic South or the experience of first-generation Black African immigrants in the U.S.”

“Documentary film has the power to let people and communities define themselves, in their own voice,” she told Adobe after winning her Ignite Fellowship in 2018. When she thinks about who will see her work, her first focus is on the subjects of her films themselves. “The most important audience is always going to be the folks that shared their time and stories.”

Crystal’s experience as an Ignite Fellow included a private Ignite screening of her documentary “Why We Stay” (in which a South Bronx community takes a stand against gentrification) at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and she has many stories to tell similar to the other directors featured here about how the community of directors in the Ignite program has supported her and allowed her to grow as a filmmaker. Her experience also included some unique perspectives gained by assisting Sundance Institute staff at the New Frontier Story Lab. Quoting Sundance, New Frontiers Lab Programs explore “narrative worlds that leverage new technologies, visual aesthetics, social media cultures, immersive designs, game theory, transmedia activism, and shifts in the boundaries of authorship.”

“When I first arrived at the lab my hope was to learn more about storytelling tools: virtual reality, augmented reality, and hybrid media platforms,” says Crystal. “What was most profound about this experience was the dialogue between the phenomenal cohort of fellows, creative advisors, industry advisors, and Sundance staff about how to draw out the most impactful and inclusive stories from these tools. I observed as they worked through the most difficult questions facing their works-in-progress while striving to prioritize substance and access.”

At the same time, she found herself frustrated by the limitations that both African Americans and African immigrants in the US have for access to new technologies and platforms for social, artistic, and political innovation. “The wonderful thing about the New Frontier Story Lab was that with the challenge of reimagination the future was taken on with so much joy and an abundance of critical thinking. People were open about their fears and used that energy to draw out the best of their own work and the work of their peers.”

See You Next Time, a Sundance film by Crystal Kayiza

And as she told Adobe, “Finding a diverse community of collaborators, people that will affirm and be critical of your work, is so important. As emerging filmmakers it’s easy to begin engaging in your creative vision as hypothetical scenarios but having the support of a creative community or a mentor can make those ideas actionable.”

IndieWire describes Matthew Puccini as returning to Sundance “with a vengeance”, building on the buzz gained from 2019’s “Lavender” (acquired by Fox Searchlight) with an even stronger film in the “must-see gem” “Dirty.”

“I was holed up at an artist retreat in the woods in the dead of winter, pacing around a motel room for a week asking myself over and over again, ‘What do I wish I was seeing? What do I wish I'd seen growing up?’", says Matthew. "'Dirty' came out of that, and out of my frustration with the lack of sex education I had as a gay teen in high school. I was so naive going into my first sexual experiences that I wanted to make something that presented that situation in an unflinching, honest way.”

“When I found out that I'd been accepted into Ignite, I remember feeling this enormous sense of relief and validation, as if I were finally allowed to take myself seriously as a filmmaker,” Matthew says. “But I think what the program ended up teaching me is that you don't - in fact, shouldn't - need to wait for an institution or a festival to validate you in order to take yourself seriously as an artist. That can start right now.”

It’s still easier to find strength from a community, which he has found through the Ignite Fellowship. “Ignite is an ever-growing family of peers that provide a support system, a friend group, a soundboard. I often find that I'm crossing paths with other Ignite fellows, whether at a festival or just socially, and it feels so lovely to be a part of a group of other artists that I admire who are grappling with similar challenges and questions.

Matthew Puccini, Sundance Ignite Fellow
Matthew Puccini

“I'm proud that in the two years since Ignite, I've been able to strike out on my own and begin supporting myself as a freelancer. It wasn't an easy lifestyle change to make but I'm finally starting to feel like there's steady work coming in, and am a little closer to figuring out the life/money/art balancing act. Having that extra free time allowed me to focus on making my two most recent short films. Both experiences were incredibly humbling and taught me so much about the type of director I want to be. And I feel lucky that each of those films has been well-received and made it in front of an audience.

“But to be honest, for every moment of accomplishment I've had, there have been countless others where I've felt crippled by self-doubt and anxiety. I think my biggest hope in moving forward is to figure out how to generate my own sense of self-worth, to not be so hard on myself and to actually have fun during the process of making new work.”

Again noting that some of the specifics of how, when, and where some of the events associated with the 2020 edition of Sundance Ignite have yet to be determined, the opportunity for young directors is very real, and the deadline for this year’s applications are very much upon us. Adding this year’s challenges to the already daunting path for any emerging filmmaker is brutal, to say the least, but the opportunities available through Ignite thanks to Sundance and Adobe mean that, rather than losing momentum, this could be the year that your progress (yes, we’ll say it) ignites.

Check out the Sundance Ignite page here to learn more and apply today.

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