Times Are Changing—So, Too, Is the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Fund

Director Kristy Guevera-Flanagan working on her documentary ‘Body Parts.’

By Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs

For more than 20 years now, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund has supported the work of nonfiction filmmakers from around the globe. Previous recipients have included projects like Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s Crip Camp, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, and Talal Derki’s Of Fathers and Sons. This year, as we open our latest call for applicants, the fund’s director, Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs, is writing to explain some recent changes to the process. To find out more about the Documentary Fund, visit the application’s homepage; submissions are now open, and they’re due by February 8, 2021.

Two thousand and twenty has been a year like no other. The global pandemic, economic turmoil, and protests for civil rights, human rights, and racial justice have reshaped how we live, work, and engage with each other. The compounding effects of the challenges we are facing have made even more apparent the deep inequities present in our society.

Amid this climate, we believe the future is ours to design. As workers and drivers of culture, it is on us to reimagine, take risks, and reevaluate our funding priorities so that together we can build a world that celebrates diverse perspectives. There is no denying that underrepresented communities face threats of erasure, and we must do more to ensure that we seed a vibrant future for the field of nonfiction storytelling.


As an Institute, we are proud of our longstanding support of global diversity, and we remain committed to granting projects that elevate and advance cultural dialogue, shedding light on the most important issues of our time. We will continue to celebrate excellence in craft, clarity in vision, and a deep connection to the stories being told. We want to elevate independent voices, and we will be supporting productions with budgets under $1 million where the creative and editorial control is held within the core creative team.

Where U.S. productions are concerned, we will continue to prioritize projects by artists from historically underrepresented communities. However, we not only want to ensure that stories about BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disability communities are being told from within these communities, but that the creative leadership of the projects we fund are deeply tied to those communities as well—something we’ve newly worked into our applications.

We also want to continue to commit to the discovery of voices from beyond our borders, celebrating the rich diversity of filmmaking traditions around the world. Since the early days of the fund, we have worked with partners in Latin America, Africa, Middle East, India, and China, we seek to deepen our work in these regions and commit to elevating voices from these priority regions. Indigenous artists from around the world are also being prioritized.


A few years ago, we worked with the International Documentary Association and a collective of other like-minded organizations to develop a standardized set of proposal requirements. This project became known as the core application. Our application has largely remained unchanged since the inception of the Core Application—until now. It feels like the right time to interrogate the questions we’ve been asking of applicants.

As a result, we’ve made some updates to our application process. We still require filmmakers to provide a story synopsis and topic summary; however, we will now be requiring all applicants to tell us about their connection to the story and to the specific communities of their projects. We are curious to learn about the type of collaboration that will happen between the creative team and the protagonist and are foregrounding questions around authorship and representation in our reviews.

We will continue to ask for a director’s statement, but rather than reading about the director’s connection to the story or motivation to pursue the specific subject matter, we want to learn more about who the director is as a filmmaker and a creative. Through our support, our goal is not only to provide grants to advance a project to the next stage, but to allow the director to grow as an artist and as a filmmaker. We want to learn about the challenges you are facing not only with this specific project but as an independent artist in general.

Also, we have introduced a new question that centers on COVID-19. We want filmmakers to reflect on how the pandemic is impacting their production and how they are able to move the project forward safely. It’s important to us that we move forward as safely as we do boldly.

In our current climate, where the distribution landscape is going through an intense flux, we have decided to remove distribution questions from the application. And unless you are applying for one of our impact funds, we no longer ask that you tell us about your impact campaign.

These updates reflect our changing environment, but they are also fluid, and we intend on learning more as we proceed. We hope to engage in dialogue with the field around these changes and continue to reassess our application over the coming year to make sure that they allow filmmakers to put their best foot forward.


We have also interrogated our selection timeline and process. In our selection criteria, we will consider filmmaker potential and project quality along with the artist’s access to creative and financial resources. Over the past year, we have made a deep commitment to diversifying our screener pool. Actively broadening our engagement with screeners from around the world who bring life experiences, curatorial experience and knowledge of film culture to enrich our process and deepen our understanding of the projects we have the privilege to review. In an effort to add transparency to our process, we are committing to making public the names of individuals serving on our decision panels.

Over the past three years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of received submissions. In order to ensure that each project continues to receive a deep level of review and discussion, we have decided to shift to a two cycle per year granting timeline. Our upcoming application opened on November 19, 2020, and it will close February 8, 2021. The subsequent cycle will open in the spring 2021, with decisions anticipated in winter 2021.

We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to serve such a rich, resilient, and vibrant community of nonfiction industry, funders, and storytellers. We consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to support storytellers who innovate and push boundaries and together, we can build a more equitable and fair future.

To apply for the Documentary Film Fund, go here; applications must be completed by February 8, 2021.


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