Sundance Film Festival

Wall-to-wall Panels


John Nein

While most programmers struggle with late prints, expired bulbs, torn films, and busted speakers, they for the most part don’t have to deal with human beings (other than filmmakers, of course). Programmer John Nein, who coordinates most of the Festival panels, is left to wrangle the human element for his panels.

Each year, the festival presents a wide range of panels and special events [www.sundance.org] that serve many masters. Generally speaking, Nein explains, “we have six ticketed events at the Prospector, and about 12 at the Filmmaker Lodge, which we normally divide between six documentaries and six narratives.” Then on top of that, there are six more thematic panels at the Microcinema at New Frontier on Main, which he coordinates with New Frontier organizers Ian Calderon and Stephen Winter.


Panels at Filmmaker Lodge

While there are always evergreen topics – funding, distribution, writing, etc – Nein looks to find topics that speak to the times each year. He starts early in the Fall. “From September to November,” explains Nein, “I keep a running tab of panel possibilities. I’ll usually have 20 – 30 ideas, but I won’t know what will work until the final schedule is issued, and I get an idea of who will be here for the festival.”

This year, for example, he noticed a number of dark comedies. And while this is nothing new – each year has its share of black humor – he felt there was a certain zeitgeist to the topic. And, as luck would have it, Jason Reitman (JUNO, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) was going to be at the festival as a jury for the short film competition. “When I knew that we had Jason Reitman, and we had films like CHOKE, GOOD DICK and BAGHEAD, this was ideal chance to explore this issue.” Although Nein readily admits that humor is not an easy panel topic: “Talking about humor can pretty much kill it.”


SLINGSHOT HIP HOP

Else where Nein looked to explore current social issues by using the available resources of filmmakers. “Black in America” brought together both filmmakers and political figures: Melody Barnes, the Executive Vice President of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, Katrina Browne, the director of the documentary TRACES OF THE TRADE [www.tracesofthetrade.org], documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell, actor Nick Cannon, critic Elvis Mitchell (here with THE BLACK LIST [www.sundance.org]) and actor Danny Glover. “The Latin Resurgence” brought together both filmmakers and executives: journalist Carlos Augusto Brandao, Producer Rodrigo Guerrero, Producer Diego Ojeda, producer of MANCORA [www.sundance.org]; filmmaker and NHK finalist Alejandro Fernandez Almendras, filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, actor and filmmaker Diego Luna, Figa Films’ Alex Garcia, and Eileen Rodriguez from the Weinstein Company.


SLINGSHOT HIP HOP

For Nein, one of the more exciting panels is the “On Plurality: The Middle East in Perspective,” which grew out the unexpected number of films by people from the Middle East telling their story. Nein pulled together: Author and NPR commentator Reza Aslan, filmmakers Philippe Aractingi (UNDER THE BOMBS) [www.underthebombs.com] — Lebanon, Amin Matalqa (CAPTAIN ABU RAED) [www.sundance.org] — Jordan, Sabiha Sumar (DINNER WITH THE PRESIDENT) [www.sundance.org] — Pakistan, Tanaz Eshaghian (BE LIKE OTHERS) [www.sundance.org] — Iran, Mahmoud al Massad (RECYCLE) [www.sundance.org] — Jordan, and Jackie Salloum (SLINGSHOT HIP HOP) [www.slingshothiphop.com] – Palestinian Territory. While topic is of burning interest to all, it was serendipity that festival ended inviting some 8 films from the area.

Elsewhere the panels focused on expanding our sense of storytelling – both stylistically and technically. A 3-D panel was convened after the festival showed U2 3D [www.u23dmovie.com] to ponder how a 1950s technology makes sense for 21st century independent filmmakers. On the next day, Wendy Levy (Bay Area Video Coalition) brought together various tech leaders and executive for “Alternative Storytelling for New Digital Media Platforms [www.zoom-in.com]” to look at how our stories will fit on our new gadgets.

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Peter Bowen

Editor, FilmInFocus.com