From Almada to Iñárritu: Sundance Institute’s Partnership with Mexican Storytellers Has Birthed Countless Cinematic Classics

A woman director with long black hair look on to her film set

By Stephanie Ornelas 

When it comes to Mexican cinema, Sundance Institute’s roots run deep. From groundbreaking films, to Oscar-winning directors, and Institute Labs designed to support Mexican artists, the Sundance Institute (and the Sundance Film Festival) has been the birthplace to some major Mexican classics — Like Water for Chocolate (1993), Sin Nombre (2009), Real Women Have Curves (2002), and Y tu mamá también (2001) are just a few. 

And though several Mexican artists are now staples in Hollywood for their American-made films, it’s their independent Mexican projects that have always won the hearts of Sundance Film Festival jurors and audiences. Acclaimed directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Natalia Almada all have strong ties with the Sundance Institute. 

“Sin Nombre” premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

 “Mexican directors’ storytelling has evolved in so many wonderful directions, particularly the last few years,” says Ana Souza, programmer for the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival. “It’s been exciting to see the innovations and the narratives and wider perceptions moving away from a singular idea of what a Mexican film can look like.” 

Audiences might recall when Teresa Sanchez won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award during last year’s Fest for her role as a struggling tequila factory owner in Dos Estaciones (2022). The film, supported by the Sundance Institute, was acquired by CinemaGuild this past April and is currently screening in select theaters around the United States and Canada. Interestingly enough, the film serves as a powerful allegory for the struggle many filmmakers encounter in getting their projects made, whether in Mexico, the United States, or any other country. 

But it’s clear that supporting Mexican artists and their projects has long been a priority for the Sundance Institute. In 1993 and 1994, the Institute partnered with Universidad de Guadalajara to host the Guadalajara Mexican Screenwriters Lab. The goal was to offer young Mexican screenwriters the opportunity to analyze their work with professional advisors from Latin America, Spain, and the United States. 

The Lab would soon support a project written and directed by none other than acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro. His early project, The Devil’s Backbone, went through the program in 1993. Today, audiences know him for his Academy Award–winning film The Shape of Water, and popular films Nightmare AlleyPan’s Labyrinth, and Hellboy.         

In recent years, the Institute has also partnered with Festival Internacional de Cine en Morelia to host the Morelia | Sundance Institute Story Lab. The program was designed to give emerging independent filmmakers and producers a chance to interact and learn from industry experts in creative funding, digital distribution, and marketing of their work. In 2017, the workshop had the invaluable collaboration of Marina Stavenhagen and renowned Mexican filmmaker Bertha Navarro, producer of iconic films such as Cabeza de VacaCronos, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

But there’s still much to do as Mexican independent filmmakers are striving to challenge the old guard with their unique visions. “While we have a lot of Mexican artists supported, our work is never done. In terms of Mexican-American and US Latinx films and stories in particular, we don’t see nearly enough of those as we would like,” says Souza. “This remains a majorly underrepresented group in the industry and we want to continue to advocate for more of these stories to be made and shared.”

In a panel discussion titled Mexico’s New New Wave at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, directors/producers Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson, Fernanda Valadez, Elena Fortes, and Edher Campos talked about the challenges Mexican artists face when it comes to getting their projects on screen as well as the current state of Mexican cinema. They all agreed that it comes down to finding distribution. 

“I was in the festival world before with Ambulante [Documentary Film Festival], and when that started in 2006, there were about six film festivals in Mexico. Now, there are 155,” said Fortes, associate producer of Vivos (2020 Sundance Film Festival). “So, even though distribution is complicated, there are a lot of different outlets to be able to see these films. And new digital elements and streaming platforms coming in are definitely changing the landscape.” 

Since the globalization of film, every decade, more and more artists of different nationalities, races, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and gender, have found the ability, drive, and avenues to share their stories. During World War II, one such country that benefited from the slowdown to the American filmmaking industry was Mexico, as the birth of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema came about. It seems that we may be on the verge of yet another golden age (or perhaps several) — especially with Sundance Film Festival screenings like Summer WhiteUsersLa Guerra CivilTime Share (2018), Midnight Family (2019), and This is Not Berlin (2019). 

“La Guerra Civil” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

While some might believe that working in Hollywood is the ultimate goal for indie film directors, that’s not always the case for artists who aim to truly tell their stories the way they are meant to be told. It’s why programs like Sundance Institute’s Labs and Festival are crucial.  

“After a few years engaged in the Hollywood process, I realized I was losing, not only my voice, but my passion for cinema. It was making me sad.” Academy Award–winning director Alfonso Cuarón candidly shared these words with Film at Lincoln Center audience members back in 2019. Known for directing films like GravityChildren of Men, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón briefly talked about his own filmmaking process as well as his early influences.

“I was living in New York [at the time] and I went to Video City and rented 25 titles that I felt were the reason I wanted to make films. After watching those, I called my brother and said, ‘I want to do a film in Mexico. Will you come to New York and work with me for a couple of weeks?’ Two days later he was there and we started writing Y tu mamá también. 

Cuarón’s film would go on to screen at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival after its initial summer Mexican premiere, and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. By then, he was already deeply connected with the Sundance Institute.

Leading up to the film’s release, Cuarón was a Creative Advisor for Sundance Institute’s Directors and Screenwriters Labs and he was also a Latin American Cinema Juror for the Festival for two years (1997, 2002). 

The perseverance and tenacity to get these projects in front of audiences is crucial to the success of furthering the independent filmmaking community worldwide. When we work to uplift artists who strive to share their authentic stories, we’re left with a multitude of creative diversity and narratives that can challenge the way we see the world — and in this case, the narratives created by Mexican artists.   

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