Friends of AndACTION Report from Sundance Film Festival

February 5, 2018

At AndACTION, we encourage social impact communicators to use films as a tool to promote empathy and engage supporters. When audiences see stories of social justice on screen, they’re better able to understand the issues nonprofit advocates work to improve. The Sundance Film festival has been known to spotlight movies that change minds. That’s why we were so excited when our friend, John Bare, Vice President for Programs at the Arthur M. Blank Foundation offered to give us the skinny on all things Sundance 2018.

Read on for John’s take-aways from the festival and why he thinks nonprofits should pay attention.

At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Bob Redford emerged from the mist as Jacob Marley, forcing us to confront the ghosts of our past and our future.

Eric Garner was among the most prominent ghosts from our past. For both a feature film, Monsters and Men, and a documentary, Crime + Punishment, Garner’s death in police custody served as a support beam for the stories. The doc film won a Special Jury Award for Social Impact, and the fictional treatment won a special jury award for Outstanding First Feature. On the global stage, The Oslo Diaries, delivered an accounting of the missed opportunities of the 1992 Middle East Peace talks.

Cast & Crew of Monsters & Men
Photo Credit: Zimbio

Given the time it takes to turn today’s news headlines into a completed film, it’s easy to imagine themes that will be prominent in the Sundance line-ups for 2019 and 2020. These are sure to feature the Nazis of Charlottesville, communities struggling with what to do about Confederate monuments, energy exploration on federal lands, and the #metoo movement. Already, the BBC has launched production of a Weinstein doc film.

While Sundance remains a trade show for indie films, it also functions as an 11-day examination of the state of the nation, and the festival itself takes on the attributes of a political party convention. It sets norms, blesses select innovations and promotes peer exchange. Based on the 2018 festival, there are three forces likely to shape our future.

First, there will be more voices. Of the 110 films selected for the 2018 festival, there were 47 first-time filmmakers. Sundance curators are unusually gifted at elevating new voices. As a result, the points of view multiply each year. As a result, we should expect more voices and more different voices at the forefront of public debate. For art, this is exciting. For polity, this may feel like chaos. It is, in a sense, a massive market correction. For a long time, a small number of powerful individuals have controlled content. All of those underrepresented groups are now fighting to be heard. Sundance, among other venues, is ready to provide the stage. At some faraway point in the future, we can imagine a majority of the country unifying around a shared message (you can label this The RFK Storyline). But not anytime soon. For now, the aspiration is to have every individual recognize his or her own experiences on the screen. In the Sundance shorts category, which represents the most accessible form of filmmaking, the festival received 8,740 submissions – and accepted just 69. Expect the submissions to grow and for Sundance to find new platforms to amplify more of the thousands of voices.

Second, there will be less emphasis on systems explanations. Think back to how Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 doc film, Waiting for Superman, used animation, graphics and expert commentary to explain the U.S. education system and why it’s not serving those who need it most. While he devoted part of his movie to the emotional tale of individual children caught up in the system, the film also gives viewers an authoritative explanation of how the system works – the kind of content the Pulitzer Prize Board began recognizing in 1998 when it added “explanatory reporting” as a category. Now imagine a future doc film following children and families through this experience, but without the explanatory context. You’ll end up with one-of-a-kind portrait like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which won a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. Another example from last year’s festival is Whose Streets?, an account of the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising from the point of view of activists. When we lift up the voices of outsiders, the resulting doc films are deeply personal, unique and experiential. The systems explanations are missing because outsiders, by definition, aren’t allowed in. Part of being disenfranchised is being excluded from the intricacies of the system. These new voices reveal the oppression by what is not on the screen.

Third, forget about the intersection of film and technology. The new pursuit is the blending of art and science. This includes films that tell the stories of science and innovation. But it’s more than that. We are at a moment when several fields are merging – entertainment, brain science and wearable smart devices. With virtual reality and augmented reality and – yes! – mixed reality, we can go from watching a movie to being in the movie. Now imagine the equipment taking real-time readings from a Fitbit-type device tracking your heart rate and blood pressure and, ultimately, brain activity that governs empathy. Content producers can begin to segment audiences into those pre-wired to bringing more or less empathy to a given situation and then – by allowing our interaction to shape the content we see – push our empathy levels higher or lower.

For those of us working in social-change movements, 2018 Sundance challenges us to work differently.

  • Rather than hiring professionals to produce stories about the people involved in our work, the future will place a premium on our capacity to recognize and harvest the stories from the individuals touched by our work. If, for example, our program touches 100 middle school girls in a science program, it’s on us to be smart enough to recognize that there are 100 different stories. We’ve got to be savvy enough to give franchise to every one of these voices.
  • We fail when we respond to personal stories of challenge and grief with hyper-rational solutions. For those of us with sufficient privilege to understand the inner-workings of systems, our challenge is to meet the storyteller where she is. Whether the underlying issues involve housing, education, police or other large-scale systems, we have to overcome the craving to respond to a story with a logic-based solution. For a disenfranchised individual, there an enormous emotional cost associated with sharing a personal story. Our only first response should be: Thank you for sharing your story.
  • Remember in high school, when you changed classes every hour to move from English to art to science? Now forget those silos. Today, success requires working across silos. Mass communication, with one-size-fits-all content, is dead. Interactive, customized content is alive. And if your activation depends on  love or empathy or passion, your outcome is growing less and less nebulous. You can now segment audiences by brain activity, emotion and affect – and deploy content to move an emotion in the direction that favors your cause. In short, empathy is malleable.