Sundance Institute Documentary Program

Jason Guerrasio interviews program director Diane Weyermann


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What is the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund?
It’s a fund to support documentaries in the US and internationally that deal with contemporary human rights issues, social justice, civil liberties, and freedom of expression. It used to be the Soros Documentary Fund.

How long has the fund been with Sundance?
It’s been here for two years.

How did Sundance take over the reigns?
I initiated the move to Sundance. It’s OSI’s (Open Society Institute) policy to spin off programs so that they eventually become self-sustainable in organizations and institutions that support that kind of work. When I moved to Sundance, the fund was spun off as a Sundance program and given a multi-year grant to continue the work here.

Have you changed the mission of the fund?
We’ve made a few changes. One of the things that we’ve done is increase the grant amount, which means that we’re funding fewer projects. We prefer feature-length documentaries that have the potential to be broadcast [on television], and the potential for a theatrical release. We look for work that has a strong appeal to a large international community. In other words, we’re not looking for films where the subject is on a local issue or a local appeal, but work that would be potentially screened around the world.

What types of projects do you seek?
The four main areas are human rights, social justice, civil liberties, and freedom of expression. We only fund one-off, feature lengths.

Should filmmakers who don’t have docs about the conflicts in the Middle East or human rights issues apply for the grant?
If it doesn’t fit in [one of] those categories then people should not submit.

Explain the different grants?
We fund in two different stages. The first fund is the development and those grants are up to $15,000. The second stage is the work-in-progress stage, and that requires a portion of a rough cut that’s about a half hour or more. That grant goes up to $75,000. Not every project gets the maximum amount. We have a limited amount of money so we never fully produce anything—our grants are always part of a larger financing package that the filmmaker puts together. The other thing that we do is, if a film gets a development grant, the filmmaker is eligible to come back to us and ask for supplemental support once they have a work-in-progress. They must demonstrate that they have raised a portion of the outstanding budget and if so, they are eligible for up to $60,000 in supplemental support.

Is the same amount given out each year?
It’s about the same. It’s a total of about one million dollars a year.

How many submissions do you receive annually?
We get about 800-900 projects a year.

How many projects do you accept?
The last two years we had two annual meetings a year and at each committee meeting we review about twenty-five projects. Of those, about twelve-fifteen are supported. They would vary year to year, but about thirty projects a year might be supported. We also have started documentary labs, which is where we take projects that have already been identified through the fund and try to help them in the creative process. One that we started this August was a documentary composers lab. We invited three projects from the fund to participate in a lab that focused on music as an element of storytelling. We’re going to start an editing storytelling lab next year. Those aren’t going to be open to the general documentary filmmaking community, simply because we don’t have that many slots.

Talk a little about the review process.
When we receive projects they are initially reviewed by our staff—this is done to make sure that everything that we need is there, and to see if the project fits with our mandate. Then the projects come to me and I review everything again, and decide which of them go to committee review. The committee is a rotating group of experts in the field of human rights and film. All the tapes and written material are sent a month ahead of the meeting so everybody has a chance to go through the project in detail. Then we come together to discuss each project and make the final grant decision.

How long does that take?
It varies from two to six months. It depends on when the projects come in.

Are there any restrictions in applying?
Films have to be at least an hour. We won’t give a grant to a filmmaker who doesn’t have creative control on their film. Can’t be a historical doc, and we don’t do biographies.

Is there a timeline within which the funds must be used?
No. In fact, some films that we have given grants to we know are going to take three, four, five years. For instance we’ve given a grant to a Danish filmmaker who’s following the Milosovic trial (Milosovic on Trial). We know for a fact that that film is going to take years to be completed and that’s fine. If anything we encourage work that really goes into the complexities of the subject matter and encourage projects that are really following something in depth, or following a character in depth, or following an issue.

What’s the deadline to apply?
We have a rolling submission; people can submit at any time.

Can you give a few titles that were selected for the fund in the past?
Gail Dolgin & Vincente Franco’s Daughter From Danang, Kate Davis’s Southern Comfort, Edet Belzberg’s Children Underground, and Deborah Hoffmann & Frances Reid’s Long Night’s Journey Into Day.

What’s the most common mistake a filmmaker makes when they approach you?
One problem is that people don’t research what to do so we get projects that don’t fit in the guidelines. People should go to our website, which lists all the details about the fund, what our guidelines are, how to apply, what we require as part of the application process. Another thing is sometimes filmmakers rush through a project that isn’t really ready. The work-in-progress category is very competitive and you should submit something that’s strong. We’re looking for something that shows both how the filmmaker is approaching the documentary stylistically and development of the narrative art, so if you only have something that’s bunched together and doesn’t show the development of the story, it’s probably not ready.

Are there any tips you can give filmmakers to make a project look more attractive?
I think the key is not to quickly submit [your project]. We don’t have deadlines, but if a filmmaker hears that we’re having a committee meeting and the films that are in by next month will be discussed, people will rush to get something in. I generally counsel people against rushing. Unless there’s a compelling reason to do that, it’s best to take the natural time to get the project to the stage where it’s going to be the strongest coming in here. Filmmakers can always submit something and say, “I’m not sure if this is strong enough at this point. Could you let us know?’” And we’re happy to do that.