Snow-covered mountains, celebrities, and long lines in the streets of Park City can only mean one thing: the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
The Skoll-Sundance partnership is a natural one. The Skoll Foundation has a long history of storytelling about entrepreneurial solutions to some of the world’s thorniest problems. Sundance has a long history of cultivating a cutting-edge community of filmmakers unafraid to tackle complicated issues. The Stories of Change program, a Skoll-Sundance collaboration, is often regarded as one of the Foundation’s most successful initiatives.
As Skoll Foundation President and CEO Sally Osberg put it, “Sundance Institute, led by Robert Redford, is a leading voice for independent storytelling whose community of world-class storytellers share with Skoll a deep commitment to highlighting injustice and shining a light on solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.”
As Ken Brecher, former Executive Director of the Sundance Institute, liked to say, “It used to be that you went to Sundance to escape the world, now you go to Sundance to learn about the world.”
This year’s lineup covered a huge range of issues. The documentary segment alone addressed themes that included education (Most Likely To Succeed), sexual assault (The Hunting Ground), civil rights (The Black Panthers, 3 1/2 Minutes), environmental issues (How To Change The World, Racing Extinction), Middle East conflict (Censored Voices), and more.
Of particular note was Racing Extinction, directed by Louie Psihoyos (known for his previous work on The Cove), which gave us an alarming look at the overfishing of sharks and manta rays in Asia, climate change and ocean acidification, and how current trends compare to previous extinction cycles.
Another festival highlight was the latest from Participant Media, 3 1/2 Minutes, which tells the story of the 2012 murder of unarmed teenager Jordan Davis, in Jacksonville, Florida. Davis’ parents spoke following the film screening and delivered a powerful message of racial unity that felt especially relevant in light of the events in Ferguson, Missouri.
Last but certainly not least was the Sundance-Skoll Stories of Change panel which brought together directors Jehane Noujaim (The Square), Orlando Bagwell (3 1/2 Minutes), Laura Poitras (Citizen Four), Jess Search of Britdoc, andSkoll Awardee Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat. The event was massively oversubscribed with lines down the block.
The panel followed recent news that Skoll is expanding our support of the Stories of Change program with a $2.5 million dollar grant, including $1 million that will be used to fund new content that shines a spotlight on solutions to urgent social issues. A video of the panel will be available shortly.
New to the program is the inclusion of support for non-documentary feature films, new media initiatives, and new forms of media. One of the big trends we saw at this year’s Sundance Festival was the use of virtual reality technology through systems like Google’s Cardboard and Oculus Rift. While most people associate the technology with gaming, it was impressive to see how developers are using the immersive experience to explore a wide range of social issues, like the conflict in Syria and sexual assault.
It was heartening and clear for all to see that the Sundance community remains committed to bringing awareness to social issues, in the belief that the power of a story well told can change lives and the world. Filmmakers often risk their lives and make huge sacrifices to bring these stories to life. Sandy Herz, Director of Strategic Alliances at the Skoll Foundation, summed it up well: “There’s no better place to find courage than the Sundance community.”