Started at Sundance: How Catherine Tambini’s Road to Academia Started at Sundance Institute

A woman in red with short blonde hair speaks into a mic in front of a large screen. Next to her is a Hispanic man with grey/black hair wearing a suit.

By Stephanie Ornelas 

“I never thought I could be a teacher. Ever.” 

When director Catherine Tambini’s documentary Farmingville took home the Special Jury Prize: Documentary nearly 20 years ago at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, it opened the door to a lot of unique opportunities. The film, which she co-directed alongside Carlos Sandoval, is centered on New York’s suburban Long Island after the hate-based beating and attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers. The documentary screened at a slew of film festivals following its premiere, and it had a handful of special screenings that made for a lot of healthy dialogue surrounding immigration. Tambini and Sandoval went on to direct another Sundance-supported documentary (The State of Arizona), and Tambini was later invited to be a temporary advisor at a weekend workshop for Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program (DFP).   

As Sundance Institute heads into lab season, it’s important to remember just how valuable our advisors and educators are. Tambini’s story is a great example of how the Institute’s impact goes far beyond the big screen. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect as we enter Teacher Appreciation Week — happening May 8–12. Tambini isn’t just an award-winning director, she’s also an adjunct professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. Thanks to her short time as an advisor for Sundance Institute, Tambini was able to discover a passion she never knew existed. 

Catherine Tambini speaks at the Filmmaker Lodge at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival

“Everybody was saying, ‘Wow, you give really good feedback,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, I do?’” laughs Tambini over Zoom. “It made me realize another potential. It was so eye-opening because that gave me a whole other perspective on myself as a filmmaker,” Tambini says of her experience leading the 2016 workshop, which took place over a weekend in Miami.

So when NYU reached out to ask Tambini if she would be interested in teaching a documentary course, she was a little reluctant at first, scared even. But then she considered her time advising for the DFP. “If I hadn’t had that experience with Sundance, where I just jumped… that was literally my stepping-off point for teaching. That really showed me that I could do this.” And she did. Tambini was soon hired to teach a Sight and Sound: Documentary class that summer at NYU, a course she recalls being extremely vigorous. 

“Six weeks, four hours a day, five days a week of me lecturing, showing films, and screening their rough cuts. It was really intense,” she says. 

During Tambini’s class, which NYU undergrad film students are required to take during one summer, student filmmakers work in crews of four to produce four short films throughout the course. Each group is then given the opportunity to show their projects to the class, where students provide feedback and engage in a post-screening Q&A.    

“It’s a really great learning experience because people don’t know how things land,” says Tambini. “And to hear your peers talking about what they get, what they didn’t get, what they like, what they didn’t like, and what could be improved — that’s really valuable to them.” 

“You’ve got to really cultivate your peers,” she continues. “That’s one of the things that I really stress, and I think we all do at NYU. A lot of [organizations] stress that the people you’re sitting in the room with are the people you’re going to go through the industry with,” explains Tambini. “It happens a lot. Once you begin to work with somebody and you find that you like to work with them, you start your careers together. And people help each other that way. Peer support is really important.” 

Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival

And Tambini would know, since she was once a Sundance fellow herself. In 2003, Tambini and Sandoval were invited to be fellows at Sundance Institute’s Documentary Composers Lab to help develop Farmingville. And the insight she gained from her advisors and working alongside other fellows during the lab was invaluable. 

“It was really helpful to see how much that added to the filmmaking process,” says Tambini. “We actually used one of the pieces that was composed at the lab in the final film. It was a wonderful community. Sundance was like a booster rocket sending me into the next level.” 

Today, Tambini is able to take the lessons she’s learned as an experienced filmmaker and an instructor and use them to help shape the future of cinema — and in doing so, she’s been given a front-row seat to the next generation. 

“It’s so exciting to see [students] grow from one project to the next. They’re so creative. They have so many good ideas and they are so ambitious. It’s just wonderful to see. Seeing the work is the most rewarding, seeing what they bring to class. And then to hear them talk about how much they learned in the class is really rewarding, too.”

Tambini particularly enjoys seeing the women in her class show interest behind the camera. Having women in such positions is crucial in order to create more films centering women’s authentic narratives. But she explains how the industry still has so much work to do when it comes to putting women in decision-making roles and specifically male-dominated roles. Right now, women are vastly underrepresented as directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, and producers. But with 54% of the incoming class at NYU Tisch School of the Arts Kanbar Institute of Film and Television being women, Tambini hopes that will change.    

“I’m really proud of NYU. I’m hoping that as there are more of us coming into the industry, as women get into more powerful positions — and it’s not just a boys club — as women who are able to hire other women, hopefully we will begin to tip it the other direction. Because women like to work with women.” 

Tambini was simply filling in for another Sundance Institute advisor when she discovered she had talents outside of filmmaking. Now, she’s encouraging students to not put themselves in a box and to be open to uncovering new passions.

“Some [students] come in knowing a lot and some are just finding their way. And I tell them that film school is the place to really experiment and take as many different classes as you can. Experience everything before you lock yourself into one silo.” 

And just as Tambini was once unfamiliar with teaching, oftentimes students don’t discover their passion until they’ve had experience performing the craft in the classroom. Tambini explains, “A lot of people know nothing about production design, and they begin having to be aware of what’s in their set, and they go, ‘Oh this is really interesting,’ and they go off in that direction. Some people find that they love to edit, and then they’re the ones who pick up the camera and love that, which is really great.”

As Tambini learned through Sundance Institute’s labs and the advisors who lead them, education and creative support are vital to shaping the future of the film industry through the next generation of artists.

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