[Pictured: I Didn’t See You There]
By Stephanie Ornelas
The future of documentary filmmaking is bright — just look to these filmmakers supported by Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. These artists are changing the norm. From international artists defying the odds in their hometowns, to artists rising up to bring groundbreaking stories into the world, these creators are redefining what it means to be a filmmaker.
This week we began our Doctober series celebrating 20 years of the Documentary Film Program. We heard from Carrie Lozano, Director of Documentary Film and Artist Programs, as she looks back at the last 20 years of the DFP, and we examined the 25 remarkable short films supported through the program. To continue our series, Lozano and Kristin Feeley (Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program Deputy Director), along with other core members of the DFP, are now sharing some insight as to why these particular filmmakers — and their films — should be on your radar.
The DFP has worked to lift up so many artists, sometimes it’s hard to keep up. That’s why we’re highlighting seven directors to watch — artists who are challenging the way creators and audiences look at documentary filmmaking. Keep them in mind when you’re searching for your next favorite filmmaker:
Charo Mato | 8 Stories of Hearing Loss
In 2020, director Charo Mato received a grant from the Documentary Film Program for Eight Stories of Hearing Loss. “Accessibility in filmmaking practice and viewing is a global conversation and she’s [Mato] pushing for a new creative language in audiovisual storytelling in Argentina that is starting to ripple across Latin America,” says Feeley via Zoom.
At the age of 23, after losing all of her hearing as a result of a hereditary, progressive, and severe auditory condition, Mato decided to unlock and overcome the doubts and fears of her family by having an operation in order to recover her hearing. She soon realizes all the things that she had lost along with sounds.
“Sound, music, and silence are an intricate part of filmmaking, but how does one hear who cannot hear?” says Bruni Burres, Senior Consultant for Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, via email. “In 8 Stories of Hearing Loss — with an intimate and confessional tone and escaping stereotypes — Argentine director Charo Mato uses her life story to communicate and perceive such a life.”
Iliana Sosa | What We Leave Behind
Iliana Sosa received support from the Documentary Film Program for her 2022 film What We Leave Behind through a development fellowship. “Iliana was part of a cohort where we gave a project — in the early stages of research and development — a significant unrestricted grant, which was unique for projects in development,” explains Feeley.
Previously named Julian, the film follows Sosa’s 80-year-old grandfather as he embarks on a monthly 17-hour-long journey from Durango, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in order to visit his son and daughters. He has made the trip every month without fail for the past 15 years and vows to continue to do so.
“We were struck by the nuanced and meditative exploration of the deeply personal relationship between director Iliana Sosa and her grandfather, Julian, that encompasses a story of remembrance, legacy, and reconnection,” says Andrea Alarcon, Labs and Artist Support Coordinator for Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program via email. “Iliana centers an artistic practice rooted in care and a desire to understand a world, a country, and a life that she is simultaneously a part of and isolated from. While grounded in her reality as someone occupying this in-between space, the film gives agency to Julian to move through the world on his own terms and leaves space for what is left unsaid to inherently say something.”
What We Leave Behind also received a Critic’s Pick in The New York Times. The film is currently in theaters and now available to stream on Netflix.
Isabel Castro | Mija
Isabel Castro’s film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and received support from the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program as well as a grant from Sundance Documentary Fund and Catalyst. Her film follows a young, ambitious music manager whose undocumented family depends on her ability to launch pop stars. When she loses her biggest client, she must hustle to discover new talent.
“It’s incredible to see Mija land at a platform like Disney+. So many youth that come from immigrant families will see themselves reflected in this film, which offers hope and inspiration,” says Lozano via email. “It’s rare that a documentary can tap into the hearts and minds of young people, and Isabel Castro, with an impressive body of work, is an exciting voice in the field.”
Nausheen Dadabhoy | An Act of Worship
In 2019, Nausheen Dabahoy’s debut feature, An Act of Worship, received support through Sundance Institute’s Documentary Producers Lab (supporting producer Sofian Khan). The following year, the film was awarded a Sundance Documentary Fund Grant to help advance her project. The film follows a new generation of young Muslim-American women activists at a time when anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States are sharply on the rise.
“Interweaving the touching and powerful stories of young Muslim women from different communities and backgrounds, the film is a portrait of empowerment and a repudiation of harmful stereotypes,” says Lozano. “It puts forth a deeply personal and artful depiction of their lived challenges and triumphs, while pointedly dismantling destructive rhetoric that begs to be stopped.”
Reid Davenport | I Didn’t See You There
This year at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Reid Davenport received the U.S. Documentary Directing Award for his debut feature film, I Didn’t See You There. The documentary would go on to screen at Hot Docs Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Vancouver Film Festival, and more. In I Didn’t See You There, Davenport is prompted to document his own personal journey after being spurred by a circus tent that goes up outside his Oakland apartment. Davenport received support through a grant from the Documentary Film Program. The film is currently showing in select theaters, with its West Coast theatrical release next week in Los Angeles.
“Just seeing the title of this film makes my heart sing. Its point-of-view, and what it reveals to viewers about disability and accessibility, is essential for all audiences,” proclaims Lozano. “But it’s also a filmmaker’s film with many cultural and artistic references that I simply cannot get enough of. This is one to watch over and over.”
Shaunak Sen | All That Breathes
Shaunak Sen won the hearts of viewers when his film, All That Breathes premiered, first at the Sundance Film Festival, and then screened at Cannes International Film Festival where he won the L’Œil d’or “Golden Eye” Documentary Award. The film, which will be available next year on HBO Max, follows two brothers who devote their lives to care for the black kites of Delhi. They tend to the injured birds of prey that are hampered by the city’s growing pollution. Sen received a development grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund in 2019.
“Some films get to the heart of the human condition in the most surprising ways, and this is one of them. It’s beautiful, deliberate, and rigorous in its attention to fact and detail,” Lozano explains. “It’s a story that shines as cinema and is revelatory as it captures political and environmental realities through the act of caring for birds.”
Violet Feng | Hidden Letters
In 2021, directors Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing received a Documentary Film Grant for Hidden Letters. The short film tells the story of two Chinese women trying to balance their lives as independent women in modern China while confronting the traditional identity that defines but also oppresses them. Connected through their love for Nushu, a centuries-old secret text shared amongst women, each of them transforms through a pivotal period of their lives and takes a step closer to becoming the individuals they know they can be.
“A long-time producer nurturing emerging voices in China and the U.S., this is Violet’s second feature as a director,” says Feeley. “Violet is a unique voice with a strong creative vision that is on full display in Hidden Letters. Violet’s work is about being seen, cared for, and uplifted. She managed to do this in a deeply personal way creating an enduring portrait of women’s experience in modern China.”