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Sundance Institute’s Documentary Fund Adjusts Application, Adds Assistance to Artists with Disabilities

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From top left: “Crip Camp,” “Minding the Gap,” “American Factory,” and “Hooligan Sparrow” are four recent projects supported by the Institute’s Documentary Fund.

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 July 26, 2021.


Last fall, we announced changes to our priorities and application questions for the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Fund. These changes were made with the intention of supporting a more equitable nonfiction ecosystem, and they included focusing on projects by artists from historically underrepresented communities, projects with budgets under $1 million, artists from regions with a developing film industry that was deeply impacted by COVID, and artists and creative teams with a deep connection to the subject matter of their projects. You can read about our latest group of supported artists here.

As we continue to look for ways to increase accessibility to the fund and build a more equitable and diverse field, we have decided to launch a new application assistance program. During our winter grant fund cycle, which will be open through July 26, we will provide small stipends to artists who self-identify as deaf, hard of hearing, having a disability, or living with a mental illness to help offset additional costs associated with disability-related barriers.

We recognize this type of support is rare in the field, and we hope that this initiative will increase access and participation in the Institute’s Documentary Fund. To request support, applicants must reach out to Documentary Fund staff via email at dfp@sundance.org as soon as possible so that we can accommodate the request in advance of the July 26 deadline. We have a limited amount of funds available, and applications will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until all the funds are exhausted.

Artists may request assistance at multiple stages of the application process, including the creation of an apply.sundance.org account or support preparing application materials. We will set aside a limited amount of funding for artists who require support in completing the written application. Applicants may also request support in gathering required materials. This support is not meant to be used to hire a professional grant writer, but rather to support an artist in submitting their own grant application.

Over the last year, we saw significant shifts across our field, from funding to distribution to even the way production happens. As longtime funders and supporters of independent film, we have remained in close communication with the artists out in the field making the work. As a result of their feedback, we’ve also made the following updates to our Documentary Fund application as a whole.

First, we’ve updated the language in the story synopsis and structure section to make it explicit that we do not require a three-act structure or narrative arc. We are excited to lift up and support films that embrace a diversity of styles and approaches, and reflect the vibrancy of the nonfiction space. Second, we wanted to simplify the language we use to explain what we mean by an applicant’s “connection to the story.” We hope that applicants in this section will explain their access and connection to the story, as well as why it is meaningful to them.

Across the board, artists should know that there is no right or wrong answer to any of the questions, and we urge applicants to put their honest selves forward. We’re eager to learn about the vision that an artist holds for their film, and we also want to hear about the very real challenges that they face. It’s imperative for us to understand where artists are in their careers and their relationship to the projects they’re pursuing. When we support a project, we’re embarking on a long-term relationship with the artists, and we’ve found that the most successful relationships start with honesty and passion. Aligning with artists’ passions for their craft, for their projects, and for involvement in the larger community is our goal.

The work we do takes a village. We recognize that the period of time between submitting an application and receiving a decision can feel like a lifetime, but it’s integral to our multi-stage review process, which strives to celebrate a multiplicity of voices and perspectives. Staff from across our Institute programs and screeners from around the world — in countries like Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, Greece, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. — help us select our semi-finalists. We then convene a panel of advisors, which changes with each round. Recent participants have included Flavia de Souza, Rashida Bumbray, Agustina Chiarino, Eddie Martinez, Diane Quon, Mohamed Saïd Ouma, and Orwa Nyrabia, and we’re incredibly grateful to all of them.

We hope you will consider submitting an application to the Documentary Fund during this current round, and we look forward to learning about your project and your artistic vision in the coming months. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the fund, the application process, or about the new application assistance program, please contact us at dfp@sundance.org. Applications are due July 26, and you can begin the process here.


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