Sundance 2014: StoryCorps Dispatches from Park City

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Image from The Power of Story Panel. Photo Credit: Lizzie Jacobs

The Power of Story: Weights & Measures audience watches a clip from StoryCorps Listening is an Act of Love. Photo: Lizzie Jacobs

Stories tell us who we are. They allow us to form values, organize meaning, and interpret the world. When shared, they transmit ideas, influence behavior, and inspire agency. They are the key to our understanding of society, democracy, and the world.

But what exactly is the power of a story? How do we measure it? Few stories achieve immediate, widespread impact. Most contribute to change incrementally — a gradual tipping of the scales through cumulative weight. Other stories reveal the subtle, transformative power of listening, engaging, bearing witness, and building bridges. With so many narratives, not all of which are true, why do some take root while others don’t?

The Power of Story: Weights & Measures panel at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival brought together a collection of internationally recognized figures utilizing unique and original storytelling methods in their endeavors. The dynamic panel included Louie Psihoyos (The Cove), Jess Search (BRITDOC), Paul J. Zak (author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity) and StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, with moderation from Ford Foundation‘s Darren Walker. We caught up with Dave and StoryCorps Senior Editor Lizzie Jacobs as they gave us the exclusive inside scoop on all things Sundance, animation & documentary.

POV: How was the atmosphere in Park City when you arrived? How did it compare to previous festivals.

Lizzie Jacobs: On arriving into Park City, it was hard to tell weather the lightheadedness I was feeling was from the altitude or the frenetic energy of the festival at full tilt. This is my first time at Sundance, but from what I understand, this has been a record year. Jon Korn, programmer for doc shorts, said that this year it was literally easier to get into Harvard than Sundance, with 8100 submissions for about 65 slots. Everyone seems to be very happy to be here — and determined to see as many films as they could squeeze in.

POV: Could you feel any “buzz” for specific documentaries at the festival?

Jacobs: The Kartemquin crew from Chicago are the belles of this ball, with both their ’94 retrospective Hoop Dreams and the eagerly-anticipated Ebert documentary, Life Itself, based on the film critic’s memoirs. The premiere of Life Itself was an emotional event, choking up Sundance film festival director John Cooper and director Steve James just in introducing the film, as well as holding the audience rapt. I was lucky to get a ticket for that film, and it was truly electric. Also getting a lot of buzz were The Overnighters, To Be Takei, Marmato, Happiness, Alive Inside, and the doc short Notes on Blindness. In the filmmakers line for tickets, I was surprised how many narrative filmmakers and actors were hoping to see docs, standing in line for more than an hour to see films such as WHITEY and Freedom Summer.

POV: Did you attend any other events?

Jacobs: I had a great time at the Docs Speakeasy. It was a great chance to catch up with folks outside of New York, like Amy Letourneau of PBS Distribution, Jim Sommers from ITVS, and of course, our fabulous host, Chris White of POV.

POV: How did StoryCorps come to be invited to Sundance.

Jacobs: John Nein, senior programmer at Sundance, saw our special Listening Is an Act of Love. He thought Dave would make a great addition to a panel Darren Walker of Ford Foundation was moderating, called The Power of Story: Weights and Measures. Dave and I were very happy to jump on the opportunity.

The Power of Story: Weights & Measures Panel Photo Credit: Lizzie Jacobs

The Power of Story: Weights & Measures Panel. Photo: Lizzie Jacobs

POV: Describe the protocol in being part of a Sundance panel discussion. What was the panel experience before, during (Q&A) and after?

Jacobs: About an hour before the panel, which was held at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street, Dave and the other panelists gathered in the green room for introductions, pictures, and a prep conversation with moderator Darren Walker. Darren took the opportunity to ask StoryCorps-style questions of the panelists, which he used in his introductions on stage. Once the panel was underway — in front of a packed house — Darren kept the conversation lively and challenging. He asked whether there were things we shouldn’t measure, and questioned if storytelling techniques that have been scientifically proven to provoke a change in viewers were potentially dangerous if used for propaganda or other less-than-good ends. All the panelists agreed that the only way to move people to change attitudes or even action was to get them to care and to connect on a personal level — and to do that, you have to tell a good story. After the Q&A, the panelists all made themselves available to follow up questions from the engaged audience members before heading out into the chilly evening air.

POV: What was the audience most interested in (as far as you could tell)?

Jacobs: People wanted to hear about how they could best measure the impacts of their work, while juggling the standard tasks of just making the film. Jess Search of BRITDOC gave great advice, which was that filmmakers actually already have tons of feedback, measurements, and evidence of impact, they just need to set up a system early on to collect and collate that information, and share the *story* of your impact. This is opposed to focusing on what you can easily report, such as likes, followers, subscribers, and hits, which she and others this weekend have emphasized aren’t particularly meaningful metrics.

The Power of Story: Weights & Measures Photo Credit: Lizzie Jacobs

The Power of Story: Weights & Measures. Photo: Lizzie Jacobs

POV: What did you hope to get out the Sundance experience? What did you get out of it?

Jacobs: Going to Sundance, I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of what is new and on the minds of doc filmmakers today. Going to both Dave’s panel and Wendy Levy’s panel the next day on impact, cleverly titled Beyond Butts in Seats and Tweets, helped me get a better picture of how funders and other key industry stakeholders view impact:

  • They expect that you have a plan for impact with realistic goals and work with community players and organizations from the start, and tell the story of your impact with a wide range of data, both soft and hard.
  • They don’t want a whole bunch of Google analytics, or that the filmmaker necessarily does the evaluation work.
  • Some exciting tools for filmmakers available now and coming down the pike, including Sparkwise and the Impact Playbook from Harmony Institute.

I also wanted to be sure to take in the animation block, to see what other animation filmmakers are up to these days.

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POV Staff
POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.