Sundance Recap: Docs and My Drama

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Cynthia Lopez at Sundance '08This is the last of our live reports from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Cynthia Lopez is POV/AmDoc’s Vice President. This festival marked her eighth year attending Sundance. What follows is her personal diary of the high and low points of last week’s Sundance Film Festival.

You just never know what’s going to happen when you go to Sundance — and this year was no exception. As I shared past experiences with my colleague and first-time attendee Simon Kilmurry, I had no idea of the drama that lay ahead. But before I get to that, I’ll start from the beginning.

Thursday, January 17:
We arrived at the Salt Lake City airport without any delays directly from PBS’s annual Creative Summit held this year in San Francisco where executive producers, creative directors, marketing people and online producers come together to discuss the latest in best practices, trends in broadcasting, media research and demographic/audience information.

I picked up my industry pass at The Yarrow in record time — thank you Sundance and Cara Mertes! Later, I headed to our hotel, the Copper Bottom Inn, to return phone calls and to finalize plans for the POV annual party on Sunday.

We ate at Chez Betty, an intimate restaurant owned by Jerry Garcia. No, not the singer. If it’s your first time at Sundance, then having a meal there is a must; it’s often a site for celebrities, if you’re into star-gazing.

Friday, January 18:
7:30 am: Finally, I was on my way to see my first Sundance Docs, a series of shorts at the Prospector Theater. Among them, I had two absolute favorites: Farewell Packets of Ten by director Ken Wardrop and Pilgrimage by Tadashi Nakamura. If you want to quit smoking you have to see these old ladies trying to have a conversation; it’s a hoot! It made me laugh so hard; comedy this natural isn’t easy to find. Pilgrimage, on the other hand, made me cry — which is difficult for me in 22 minutes! I am not that wound up. The film feels like an Asian hip-hop music video, and explores the tragic history of the Japanese concentration camps in California during World War II.

Congratulations to Isabel Vega and Amanda Micheli, the directors of La Corona, for being nominated for an Academy Award! (The nominations were announced the day after I saw the film.) Even though I am not a fan of beauty pageants, this film speaks volumes about the status of women in Colombia.

The annual PBS party began at 7 o’clock, and we again met with our colleagues at public television. The party is given to salute the seven film projects that were accepted as part of this year’s festival. Filmmakers whose works will have their national broadcast premieres on PBS include Gonzalo Arijon (Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains), Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan (Dinner With the President: A Nation’s Journey); and Nino Kirtadze (Durakovo: Village of Fools). Among the PBS attendees were John Boland, Kathy Lo, Stephanie Aaronson, Phil Piga, and independent publicist Cara White. This year, the Independent Television Service co-sponsored the party, and the ITVS crew was well represented with Lois Vossen, Claire Aguliar, Jim Sommers, and Randall Cole, in attendance. Scott Chaffin of Utah public television station KUED, whose support of independent work has been stellar, was there as well. KUED has a long history of supporting independent film, and has featured POV programs like Scout’s Honor (POV 2001) and The Smith Family (POV 2002).

The reception is a great opportunity for fellow PBS filmmakers to meet each other as they join the PBS family. The roster of POV filmmakers in attendance included: Steven Sebring (Patti Smith: Dream of Life), Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze), Katrina Browne (Traces of the Trade). In addition, we were able to mingle with old friends like Texas filmmaker Paul Stekler (Last Man Standing, POV 2004) and Thomas Allen Harris (The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, POV 2006). The PBS Sundance Party — there’s synergy here that you cannot find anywhere else. These filmmakers all believe in the mission of public television and producing media in the public interest.

Saturday: January 19:
2 pm: In order to prepare for Steven Sebring’s multimedia installation at the Julie Nester Gallery in Park City, a few of us decided to help out.
Shoshana Sebring, the creative consultant for Patti Smith, developed an amazing array of promotional materials for the film and the installation. Shoshana and I agreed that we would spend some time together and assemble the materials. The Patti Smith commemorative scarf that Shoshona produced is pretty incredible. If you can still get one at the gallery — it is a limited edition — you’ll love it! It most definitely will become a collector’s item.

When I arrived and found Shoshana and Catherine (a close friend of the family and Annie Leibowitz producer) knee-deep in press kits, gallery invitations and scarves, I realized that this is what Sundance is all about: people from different creative disciplines coming together to support the makers of documentary film.
On to the drama…

Monday, January 21: 2 am
Gut-wrenching pain on my right-hand side caused me to take a trip to the Park City Clinic.

It wasn’t until the gurney was clicked into place in the ambulance and the young, absolutely gorgeous Native American 6 foot 2 EMS worker said, “My name is Jake, Cynthia, you don’t have anything to worry about; you’re going to be fine, I’ll take care of you,” and saw Simon Kilmurry and Beni Matias (friend/NALIP Chair) standing outside in the snow that I realized I was involved in a very different drama at Sundance. Perhaps it was the Demerol or the cold air, or even the sight of the stars and the mountains I couldn’t believe, but I never saw this coming. It wasn’t like the dramas I waited in lines to see on opening nights at previous Sundances, like Real Women Have Curves by Patricia Cardoso, where I met America before she became Ugly Betty, or Everyday People by my good friend Jim McKay. Those dramas feel like documentaries because you empathize with the people portrayed. This was completely different. And all I could do was worry about the fact that Ruiyan, our enthusiastic interactive producer, had asked me to blog while I was at Sundance, and now what would I do?

After 10 hours of angst, I was released. No, I did not have appendicitis but I do have a condition that needs medical attention. The University of Utah medical staff was kind, clever and conscientious. Thank you very much for taking care of me.

Tuesday: January 22, 2008 10:30-12:30
Commissioning Editors Roundtable

This is absolutely my favorite part of my journey, where first-time and emerging filmmakers get the chance to pitch their ideas to HBO, PBS, POV, Indie Lens, Sundance Channel, BBC, Ford Foundation and many others. Often these ideas become feature films, shorts or even the topics of novels — though it usually takes a few years. I’ve seen it happen… slowly.

Please remember the following names: Penelope Andrews, Ramona Diaz, Ron Messar, Morgan Stiff, Shilpi Gutgha and Julie Isenberg. They participated in the POV sessions, and even though for confidential reasons I cannot describe their projects, I’m sure that some of these folks will have their Sundance premieres … in time.

Cynthia López
Cynthia López
Cynthia is the vice president for American Documentary | POV From 2000 to 2003, she served as POV's director of communications, during which she increased national coverage of POV documentaries by 700 percent and won an EPPSilon Award for the Farmingville campaign. In her new expanded role, Cynthia's responsibilities include overall development of the organization, programming/content development and delivery and strategic planning. In addition, she continues to maintain oversight of POV's communications and marketing department, driving the department's communications and brand development. Cynthia has built strategic partnerships with Pentagram, Inc., Harpo Studios, Netflix, ABC News' Nightline, WNYC New York Public Radio and Ms. Magazine, among others. Cynthia is a founding board member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. She is an advisor to REEL New York (Thirteen/WNET New York), the Heinz Awards, the Rockefeller Foundation, White House Conference on Libraries, Latino Public Broadcasting, the Banff Centre in Canada, United Nations Women's Conference and the Center for Democratic Communications (South Africa), among many others. Cynthia's favorite documentaries are: 1. The Devil Came on Horseback by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg 2. Every Mother's Son by Tammy Gold and Kelly Anderson 3. My Country, My Country by Laura Poitras 4. Iraq in Fragments by James Longley 5. Glass Jaw by Michael O'Reilly