Sundance Ignite Filmmaker Leah Galant: “Putting the Fire Out”

Leah Galant

At the end of the summer, my life was completely flipped upside down. I quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, and moved back home in what seemed like a step backwards for a recent college graduate.

Needless to say, I was feeling weird and creatively stuck. In the midst of applying for jobs and figuring out what to do with my life, I saw the Sundance Ignite “What’s Next” Challenge pop up on my social media feed. “What’s Next?” was a question I had been asking myself for a while, not only for my career, but for the future of our uncertain political climate.

During that time, the anniversary of 9/11 was approaching and a lot of my thoughts were occupied by how horrible the news was and how much trauma I was seeing as I scrolled through my news feed. In what seemed like a perfect case of the stars aligning, I knew I wanted to say something and this challenge was a perfect chance for me to express myself.

My film, Putting the Fire Out, about how my mother’s 9/11 survival story and growing up in a culture of fear shaped me as a media maker, was one of the hardest projects I had to make. Logistically, having a week to create was challenging, and as someone usually behind the camera instead of in front of it, I had never experienced becoming vulnerable.

Luckily, I also had the support of Jacob Burns Film Center and our incredible mentor Sean Weiner. In the end, I’m really glad that I ended up making this film and my mother and I joked that it was a healing process for both of us. With so much political emphasis on fearing “the other,” I wanted to create something that challenged that thinking in the best way I knew how: through art.

I’m still trying to process how this film led me to flying over the Rockies headed for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. On the first day at the Festival, Bethany Clarke and Meredith Lavitt from the Ignite team sat us down with the mentors who would be working with us throughout the year. Between the support from our mentors and opportunities for internships and jobs, my jaw was wide open. We all left dinner pretty quiet until one of us turned to the others and said,

“So I think our lives just changed in the past couple of hours, right?”

The shock did not wear off over the week as we continued to experience panels, meet incredible filmmakers, and watch inspiring films throughout the festival. One of the highlights as a documentary filmmaker was having an intimate film chat with Oscar-winning and legendary filmmaker Barbara Kopple after screening her moving film, This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous. During the conversation I kept reminding myself this was really happening and it meant so much to connect with her about her work and process.

What really struck a chord with me was when Barbara explained how she works with her subjects and the intimate and delicate relationship that unfolds when you are able to trust each other and bring someone’s story to life. I certainly have taken that message home with me as I continue to create documentary films featuring powerful and strong characters who have gone through so much yet are still willing to share their story in hopes of inspiring others.

I was so thrilled to learn that my Ignite mentor Jeff Orlowski was going to be working with me throughout the next year. His film Chasing Coral, which follows the bleaching of Coral reefs was unlike anything I have seen before. He successfully was able to humanize a topic that is often reserved for scientific discussion or political discourse. I left the film crying, but moved to action, as opposed to feeling hopeless.

Right now, I am wrapping up production on a short documentary about two Holocaust survivors whose rich histories and incredible friendship come to life while also incorporating hand drawn puppet animation. I’m excited to finally share their stories during a time when I feel they need to be heard more than ever.

I’m also working to get a documentary series off the ground about the last abortion clinics in the U.S., called The Last Clinics. The support and advice I received during the festival have already positively shaped this project so that stories of women and communities who are fighting back can be told.

I am so grateful to be welcomed into the Sundance family and to have the opportunity to spend time with talented creatives while making lifelong friends. Even as the news around us swirled with controversy, hate, and fear, it felt appropriate to be in a space that re-energized the independent film community so we can go back in the world and create change through our stories and vision.


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