Whether Joan Rivers or Genocide, Sundberg and Stern Find Compelling Stories

BY Lauren Knapp  May 12, 2011 at 12:05 PM EST

After more than two decades, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern now have what Sundberg calls, “a long marriage of a work partnership.” The documentary filmmakers founded Break-Thru Films in 1990 and began working on their first major, feature-length documentary in 1994. But because of a twist in the story, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” wouldn’t be completed until 10 years later.

With films that examine the American justice system, genocide in Darfur and civil war in Cambodia, it’s not surprising that the two have become labeled “social issue filmmakers.” But they’re also responsible for “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” and an upcoming film that explores the history of the curveball.

“Ricki and I have always been drawn to character first,” explains Sundberg. “We never went in with the goal of outlining an issue — we were introduced to a character or we stumbled upon a story that, for us, was a narrative that we wanted to follow.”

Art Beat talked to Annie Sundberg at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., where she and Stern were given the Career Award.

After a successful decades-long partnership, the two have evolved as a filmmaking team. Originally working together on shoots, they now divide up projects, which allows them to follow more stories. “It’s easier lifting when there’s someone else there,” explains Sundberg.

But the benefits of a partnership go beyond scheduling ease. “There’s so much unpredictability, and having a partner to weather the storms of a twist in someone’s life story or just even in managing a production over the years and cheerleading each other along the way- – that’s incredibly valuable. I think the challenges come when you have differences in creative viewpoints,” Sundberg says.

While they’ll continue working in the documentary world, Sundberg says they’re also interested in branching out to fiction and are eager to learn how partnering filmmakers split up responsibilities in that genre.

Watch a trailer from Sundberg and Sterns most recent film, ‘Burma Soldier:’