By Marco Vera
Sundance Institute has been supporting independent filmmakers for over 30 years through the platform its world renowned Film Festival provides, but there's an innovative three year old program named Film Forward, which is taking this support a quantum step further by establishing connections between filmmakers and underserved, willing audiences. Sundance Institute's Film Forward program brings the best in independent cinema to communities who might not otherwise have as many options or access to independent cinema, much less to meet, share and discuss with the auteurs of these films.
As founded by Robert Redford in 1981, the Sundance Institute nonprofit set out to develop an artistic community which nourished film and theater artists of all backgrounds, all the while encouraging a multicultural connection and ambience. Independent storytelling at the time did not possess the platform Sundance currently provides to consolidate these incredible stories being produced the world over with an audience who wants to be inspired by non-conventional, original storytelling. Sundance would then go on to develop artistic development programs for directors, screenwriters, producers, film composers, playwrights and theatre artists. Sundance Institute recently created and put into motion its Film Forward program with the aid of several federal partners in order to develop and engage new audiences for independent film.
Film Forward offers film screenings, director Q & A's and workshops in order to advance a cross-cultural dialogue through the art of independent cinema. Film Forward travels to unconventional parts of the globe to promote a better cultural understanding and empathy, to inspire aspiring filmmakers by establishing a direct contact with professional storytellers, and to create community via the shared sets of stories and values which transcend languages and borders. By reaching out to artistically underserved communities, the power of storytelling comes alive through the exploration of the common worldwide issues explored in films made in different corners of the world, in different cultures.
In the advent of the digital download, an initiative with this type of drive certainly does not come across as commonplace.
Film Forward returned to the Imperial Valley and Mexicali, Baja California for a second year in 2013 and established more connections with these extremely desirous communities. The filmmakers on board for this trans-border adventure were director Jerry Rothwell, presenting his film "Town of Runners" about three young runners from the town of Bekoji in Ethiopia, a town that has produced Olympic medal caliber athletes, and Stacy Peralta, presenting his film "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography" about the now legendary team of disenfranchised youngsters who would go on to impact the world of skateboarding to this day. Film Forward established itself in unconventional screening locations such as outdoor skate parks/skate shops, ejidos (farmlands), underserved high schools, galleries, independent spaces and community centers, the local film school, plus the anarchic, self sustained arts community of infamous Slab City.
The first of four days worth of screenings kicked off with films being exhibited at Imperial High School and San Diego State University's Imperial Valley Campus. Both were attended by students and visitors eager for independent cinematic options. Different generations of students, staff, athletes and skateboarders shared their enthusiasm for storytelling during the director interviews and demonstrated how grateful they were to have this human element in the directors' coming to visit a county where, as stated by its citizens, culturally "no one ever comes here."
The night continued into outdoor screenings at unconventional locations such as the Brawley Skate Park, where skateboarding families came out to share their dreams and experiences with director Stacy Peralta. Director Jerry Rothwell traveled to visit Ejido Estación Delta, a small community on the outskirts of Mexicali where cinematic options are practically nonexistent. Ejido Estación Delta has been recently reconstructed and dotted with beautiful, local mosaic work via an artistic initiative which seeks to bring more cultural opportunities and forums to the rural areas in the Mexicali valley. It is in these open air, community based screenings with non-conventional screening facilities and portable equipment, where we see a real connection with film. When there are no cinematic options on hand, audiences are appreciative in a brand new manner towards these films and the directors who are on hand to share their experience with them.
The second day of screenings delved into the world of local university filmmaking at Universidad Autonoma de Baja California's audiovisual production facilities. Both Jerry Rothwell and Stacy Peralta presented their films in the university screening room to an astounded crowd of young, aspiring student filmmakers. As guerrilla filmmaking stories and tips were exchanged, the appreciation for the directors' human element and involvement grew all the more enriching. As Peralta himself stated in his Film Forward blog entry: "One audience member, a female student brings tears to my eyes when during the Q&A she says to me; 'Your visit with us and your spending time with us here, lets us know you believe in us.' I'm so taken aback by her sincerity that I have to hold back tears."
Another interesting factor of the Film Forward program is how filmmakers have to adjust to local conditions and environments, such as border crossing, an assimilation of the local work ethic. Hours are spent waiting at the border in order to access each country, in order to continue expanding on a sense of community through independent cinema and shared stories, despite these physical, racial and national divides.
Nighttime gave way to a screening at Cheap Tricks Skate Shop in El Centro, CA, where the whole street was blocked off in order to screen "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography." Skate ramps were set up and local garage bands played in what turned into a celebration of the local skateboarding culture after a vigorous and inspiring Q&A with director Stacy Peralta. In conversing and sharing with filmmakers on a personal level, the stories told through film bear a deeper transcendence and universality and can become an inspiring and positive assertion for a local ethos.
The next morning, both filmmakers travel to the community of Santorales for a Q&A session at Cecyte Misiones High School in the outskirts of Mexicali. Hundreds of students eager to meet the film directors fill the outdoor auditorium with an unrestrained, youthful energy that influences the directors as they share their experience and life stories with this culturally underserved community.
Jerry Rothwell began his directorial career as a community based filmmaker, where he worked with marginalized European communities by helping the people tell their stories via digital storytelling. This communitarian filmmaking spirit remained alive and well during his Film Forward visit. As Rothwell states in his Film Forward blog entry: On the western outskirts of Mexicali, we show both films outdoors to several hundred students at Cecyte Misiones School. Children in the school live mostly in the housing projects in the area, now squatted by people from all across Latin America who've arrived to cross the border, and ended up making their lives on this plain. I'm struck by the welcome we're given. There's an overwhelming sense of hunger for this kind of visit - perhaps the feeling that their situation is invisible to the wider world and that our coming here feels like a rare recognition.
Stacy Peralta's experience as one of the founders of modern skateboarding comes alive when he expresses the secret of his success is failure. Stacy convinces the youth that the most important thing in skateboarding is learning how to fall, an excellent and inspiring analogy for the many hardships that lie ahead for those students seeking to excel in any type of artistic endeavor.
After screenings at Imperial Valley College Art Gallery and Southwest High School, the Film Forward crew headed out to the infamous Slab City, a misfit haven labeled as "the last free place" by its citizens who have given up on modern living and decided to collectively exist off the grid in the middle of the desert. The nighttime screenings of both films take place at Bill the Builder's communitarian talent refuge, The Range, which hosts a weekly artist showcase and has been featured in films such as Sean Penn's "Into the Wild." Outsider art landmark Salvation Mountain welcomes all visitors to these uncommon screenings, under highly visible stars and a deeply welcoming spirit on behalf of Slab City's community members.
The final day of the Film Forward tour is most beneficial for aspiring filmmakers working locally, on practically nonexistent budgets. The feedback sessions between these young storytellers and directors Stacy Peralta and Jerry Rothwell are wonderful, reciprocal learning experiences, full of admiration for the stories being told on both ends of this filmmaking spectrum, at both UABC and Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center workshops. The experiences and hardships shared by both experienced filmmakers make the impossible seem possible, and have sincerely inspired a generation of promising local filmmakers to pursue their dreams against all odds.
Jerry Rothwell's final screening took place at the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales (Institute of Cultural Investigation) to a full house packed with cinephiles and young student athletes. A local trainer brought his group of young runners to Rothwell's film, which established a deep connection with them and their athletic convictions. Film buffs that were conscious and acquainted with Rothwell's previous documentary features also enriched this Q&A for a director who, like Film Forward, seeks something unique through his brand of filmmaking: creating community.
The Film Forward program ended on a high note as Mexicali celebrated their love for their local skateboarding and DIY culture at one of the city's oldest cultural institutions, Casa de la Cultura. For the first time in years, underground culture was given its proper due and respect through the screening of Peralta's film, a film that creates a connection with the viewer which transcends that of a mere insider subculture film by focusing on the human elements and stories that made the Bones Brigade as influential as they are now.
The fiercely diverse crowd of hundreds on board for this film experience included skateboarders, punk rockers, cinema fans, families, artists, etc. After a passionate Q&A session, Peralta signed hundreds of skateboards, shirts, zines, body parts for future tattoos and other related paraphernalia. The night was topped off by local punk rock bands donning their best stage personae and commanding the stage in one of those rare occasions where the underground peeks its head above ground in absolute synergy and communion with the rest of society.
The Film Forward program successfully implemented what it set out to do and left behind an indelible impression and inspiration within a local artistic community hungry for these types of unlimited, quality options, unaffected and unrestricted by any borders.
Films screened without directors included "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Chasing Ice," "The Light In Her Eyes," "The Loving Story," "Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)" and "Valley of Saints."
Film Forward travels to Colombia March 18th - 23rd, 2013. For more information on upcoming locations on the Film Forward schedule, visit Film Forward.
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