Debra Granik: It helps me just at the very least to give meaning into my life as a filmmaker to use the terms that are at the core of Film Forward. The idea that there is cultural dialogue and there’s cultural dialogue and you don’t have to go far. You don’t have to go far. You can go to a different part of New York City and you can have students of color express wonderment and in some ways confusion that there are poor white Americans. And that’s already a bridge of something. That just eases up certain kinds of assumptions that are made about how things work in this country. Similarly, it was interesting to see the way that for example, the music of the Ozarks did seem to really compel and interest foreign audiences and that would make people in the Ozarks really delighted that people in Austria and Sweden and Finland were curious about their lives and their music making and their art forms. That does a lot. That does a lot to feel like there’s this empathetic interest in your life among people who live really far from you and who you’ve never met. So, there is that. All of that is in this mix of the very good things that happen when two people who don’t know a lot about each other start to talk.
Jo Reed: That was director of the award-winning film Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik. She was talking about her experiences with the program Film Forward. Winter’s Bone was one of ten films chosen for the inaugural year of Film Forward. Film Forward was created to use the power the power of film to inform and build a global conversation around the issues and themes explored in the specific films chosen.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Film Forward is an initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Arts. Now in its second year, Film Forward presents five American and five foreign films, both narrative and documentary, to audiences in the U.S. and abroad. Its aim is to enhance cross-cultural understanding, collaboration and dialogue. Through Film Forward, movie-goers engage with the filmmakers themselves during post-film talkbacks, roundtables, and workshops in places ranging from China, to the Chippewa Reservation in Northern Michigan, from Tennessee to the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx.
In May, half-way through its first year, the whole Film Forward team, including all ten of the directors came to Washington DC for a one-day, multi-venue screening of all 10 of the films on the National Mall. That’s when I had the chance to speak with Keri Putnam. She’s the executive director of all of the Sundance Institute’s programs, including Film Forward. We spoke in her hotel room, and fair warning, you will occasionally hear the sounds of the city in the background. I began our conversation by asking her how the films for the program were chosen.
Keri Putnam: As is everything in this project the films are selected on a collaborative basis, between the Sundance Institute as the private partner and our federal partners. The way it works specifically for film selection, Sundance Institute chose a batch of the best films. You know, many more than we would ultimately come to choose for the final selection. And we presented, I can't remember exactly how many, probably about 30 to 40 contenders for the Film Forward slate. And we shared copies of those films, information about those films. And our knowledge of the artist behind the films, in terms of how they would fare in discussions about their films. Because sometimes, you know, there's a great movie, but that filmmaker isn't necessarily the best one to handle and generate discussion around the movie. Because, you know, that's a factor here, too. So using...
Jo Reed: Two different skill sets?
Keri Putnam: Exactly. Exactly. So using our knowledge of the field and our knowledge of the filmmakers, we present it a universe [ph?]. And then, we all got together. And we mixed and matched. And we thought we wanted to make sure that there was a balance, as I mentioned earlier between narratives and documentaries. We wanted to certainly make sure that there was a balance between international films and domestic films. So weighing all those factors in, and the criteria being the highest quality, and their ability to speak universally on themes that will get people thinking, get people talking and generate that dialog. Those are really the key criteria.
Jo Reed: Well, give me an example of some of the films that were chosen this year.
Keri Putnam: Sure. Sure. Well, there's ten films in the program. And it's hard to pick among them. But I just ran into one of our filmmakers, Jennifer Arnold. Her film is called "A Small Act." And it's a beautiful film, which is a documentary. It tells the story of a Kenyan man who, as a child, was the recipient of a grant to get his education, his secondary education and ultimately his later education. And he went on to great success, you know, in his career and academically, and wanted to give back. And set up a fund of his own, an educational fund of his own for children in Kenya to have the same opportunities he had. So the story tracks the children that are competing in the Kenyan system to access those funds. But extraordinarily, it also tells of his search for the woman who funded his education, who ends up being alive and living in, I think, Sweden. And it's about their connection over all of these years. And how, sort of, her act of generosity really was pay forward through his act. So it's about the value of education. It's about the interconnectedness between countries. It's about what one person can do to make a difference. It's one example of a film that has so many themes to it, I think. And you can screen it anywhere and those issues bring up a lot of great conversations.
Jo Reed: I would think, and I thought it's a great companion film with "Freedom Riders."
Keri Putnam: Absolutely. And "Freedom Riders” I mean, I'd love to talk about all the films in the program. ""Freedom Riders” Stanley Nelson's film, another documentary, tells the story of the Freedom Writers of the American Civil Rights Movement. And, you know, it's a powerful tale. It's a beautifully made documentary. And I think, to bring that film and that sort of personal footage, the sort of intimate footage of that time and place and that story in America. For example, "Freedom Riders” was just screened in China. So bringing that film as part of this program to Chinese students and Chinese audiences ….
Jo Reed: Well, let's jump ahead and talk about that. Because as the films are being screened, as I recall, they're going to six different countries and six different states. Is that right?
Keri Putnam: Yes. Yes. Six international and six domestic locations. We began in Tunisia. And then, we went to Istanbul and, actually, to Ankara. We went around Turkey a bit. Then, we just returned from China. Our next trip is going to be Kenya and then, Uganda. And then, we're going to Morocco. And then, we do UNESCO in Paris. So Paris isn't, you know, as much of an under served audience for independent film as the rest of these areas are. But because it's the UNESCO gathering, we're presenting these films there as well.
Jo Reed: Now, that's what I was going to ask you, who the target audiences are for
Keri Putnam: Right. In every location we go to, the primary goal is to reach audiences that wouldn't necessarily self-select to go see an independent film. That would be the ones that might be hard to reach with stories like these that aren't used to seeing films that reflect as diverse an experience as this slate of films does. So we're looking for audience that are in smaller communities or communities that maybe are not served by a movie theatre that screens these sorts of films or another means of getting them. That's one audience. We also have, in every location we go, we look to do some education outreach. So, either with university or high school students, we look to try to do some outreach and bring the films and filmmakers to talk about, both, the creative process and the themes of the films in an educational setting. And then, finally, and this is the Sundance perspective, and it's very important for us as a part of the program, we have a lot of partners who are in the artistic community. So we do look for an element that's an artist-to-artist exchange. For example, master classes or workshops or an opportunity to share work from the region with our artists. For example, in China, as a, sort of, a side bar to the program, we partnered with an organization called CNEX, which is the largest, and I think maybe the only, independent documentary organization in China. And we did a joint workshop with them for new Chinese filmmakers. So it's not strictly part of the Film Forward program. But being there with Lixin Fan and his film and being there with Stanley, it was a great opportunity to connect those artists and those thinkers at another level.
Jo Reed: Well, it's interesting, because as I'm looking at the slate of films and looking at the places that you're bringing them, it seems to be a really interesting combination of presenting films in, if not their home country, in a culture that's quite similar. And then, having radically different experiences. How's that been?
Keri Putnam: It's been great. You think Lixin Fan is a Chinese filmmaker, you know, as our presenting his film in China was extraordinary for him, because he hadn't had an opportunity to do that. He lives in Montreal now. So that was a specific instance in bringing a filmmaker from a region to his home country. That was the only example of that so far. But it was great, because he was also able to help us as a, sort of, a co host or intermediary to generate interesting discussion with the other films, "Winter's Bone" and "Freedom Riders" and all the other ones that were there with their artists. To sort of help us bridge those cultural discussions. When we were in Turkey, in Istanbul, Cherien Dabis was there. And she’s not Turkish, but she's an American from the region. And she tells a story about a Palestinian woman who was, you know, immigrated to the United States. And her family. And the film, "Amreeka," in telling a story that comes from the region, you know, the Middle East. In the Middle East with a filmmaker of Middle Eastern descent, but who grew up in America, was a great opportunity to talk about, you know, what perceptions are of how America feels about the Middle East. And, you know, what the immigration experience is like. And I think it was, both, the cultural connection she had and the differences were really able to become points of discussion.
Jo Reed: And in just a stunning piece of, I don't know, fortune...
Keri Putnam: Tunisia, yeah.
Jo Reed: Tunisia.
Keri Putnam: Yeah. We were in Tunisia just a few weeks before, you know, all the changes that happened there. I don't know that we could, from the screening program that we had, have predicted that that was about to happen. But it is. And I wish I had been on that program myself. I wasn't actually there. But we did screen ten films there. And, you know, we were engaged in a dialog around all of these themes right at that time with a bunch of very engaged audiences. So I'll be curious to go back to North Africa. It'll be interesting to see how that feels by comparison.
Jo Reed: I would imagine as you're looking to reach out to under served audiences, I mean, audience building is something of course that, you know, we're all very concerned with and spend time thinking about. That your work with local partners would be really important…
Keri Putnam: It's critical.
Jo Reed: ...to help you do that.
Jo Reed: Critical piece. And, in fact, the program wouldn't work if we didn't-- the program couldn’t work with Sundance, even with the federal partners, going into regions, even domestically. Never mind internationally, without partners. So internationally, we've been hosted by the Embassies, who's helped us, logistically helped us reach communities that we're looking to reach that we may not know about. But we also find a local presenting partner that is usually another arts organization like Sundance. So, for example, in Turkey, it was the IF Film Festival. In China, as I mentioned, it was CNEX. In Tunisia, it was another film-based organization. So these are organizations that are used to reaching audiences. But understanding the goals of this program, know that they have to reach beyond their usual constituents, you know, to get out there into the field more. So it's a nice comparison with the Embassies or local arts partner. And then, in some cases, we're looking for other NGOs. In Kenya, for example, we're working with an organization called Film Aid. And they, specifically, deal with the refugee community there. And so we'll be taking the films to the refugee camps on the border. And screening there and doing some outreach with young people in those camps.
Jo Reed: And you're also looking for under served audiences here in the United States...
Keri Putnam: Yes. I'd love to talk about that a bit. And I think in that instance, our federal partners are very helpful. Because there are, you know, IMLS, for example, museums and libraries are a great place to start. You know, we always look for a partner in that category where we go. But a couple of examples, we were in Nashville. Through our partners there, we had a presenting community-based theatre there in Nashville that helped us reach out to the Kurdish community. We are able to screen "Son of Babylon" for the Kurdish community in Nashville. We bought "La Mission," which is Ben Bratt's film, to an at-risk youth center there, where there were a lot of gay and lesbian youth. And the themes of the movie, obviously, very relevant for them. We're soon going to Michigan to the Saginaw Chippewa Reservation, where Sundance Institute has a long running native and indigenous program. And so working with tribes around the country is something that we're experienced doing. So be able to work with that tribe and bring in an indigenous artist like Taika Waititi from New Zealand to work with that community is a great, great opportunity for us to engage partners locally. But, really, show those, sort of, boundary crossing themes that are what the program's all about.
Jo Reed: Here's the paradox of film for me.
Keri Putnam: Yes.
Jo Reed: Which is it is a universal language. And it costs so much money to make a film.
Keri Putnam: Yes, it does. It does. And yet, I think we see with the increasing availability of technology, the means of production have come way down. And so, you know, you find extraordinary independent films being made for-- I mean, it's still a lot of money. But you find extraordinary independent films being made for tens of thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. You know, we're all familiar with what the studio movies cost. You know, 'cause we read about that in the paper all the time. But these films are personal. These films are made by passion. They're often, especially with the documentaries, they're often made with the support of non-profit organizations. And I think that as we see the technology being placed in more and more hands around the world, we'll find the accessibility of film production reaching more people.
Jo Reed: But what about the all important question of film distribution?
Keri Putnam: Yes. Well, that's something that we, at Sundance, think about a lot. And I'd like to just step back a minute and talk about what this program means to Sundance. I think, you know, Sundance for 30 years has been a place that dedicated to discovering and developing and supporting new artists in film and theatre. Because we believe that storytellers in these medium really have an opportunity to inspire us and engage. You know, and connect us across boundaries. It's something that Robert Redford believed when he founded the institute. So the idea of seeking those artists whose voices can help tell the stories, to achieve that is a huge part of what we do and what we have done. But the second part of our mission, which is best embodied by the Sundance Film Festival, and now by Film Forward, is to connect audiences with this new work. And, initially, you know, 10, 15 years ago, having the film festival was a perfect way to do that. Because the distribution community would come there and then, the films would get seen from there. And that still works, to a large degree. But now, there's a number of wonderful films that just don’t get distributed and don't get to the audiences that really might be eager to see them and benefit from seeing them. So, at Sundance, we're looking for creative new ways to try to reach audiences that, either, can't afford to come to Utah in January. Or aren't lucky enough to see it when it's on PBS, or have the local theatre in their community that screens these sorts of films. So a program like Film Forward, with both, you know, supporting the artist by, you know, allowing their film to be seen. And allowing them to connect with other artists and audiences and seating audiences, as we've talked about, beyond the usual months for independent film, is very organic to what we stand for at Sundance. And I think it's one of many ways to, kind of, push beyond what people think about as traditional distribution, in terms of getting these films in front of people.
Jo Reed: The other part of Film Forward that seems to be quite crucial, is the fact that in some ways the film continues when the lights come up.
Keri Putnam: Absolutely. In fact, that's, you know as I think I said at the outset, the core belief of this program. And the criteria for selection for the films is that these stories are ways of engaging diverse audiences in dialog about the underlying themes and values that, either, you know, connect or divide us. You know, that will generate discussions. So the film is part one. The second part of the program is those Q and As, those round tables, those educational opportunities, those artist-to-artist exchanges. All of these elements that allow, you know, the original screening to get talked about will also, then, live beyond the visit to the country. We'll live in the online community that we're building around these stories. So that's another exciting evolution of it, I think, to allow the dialog to continue.
Jo Reed: So you plan to continue having a very active online presence?
Keri Putnam: We do. I mean, we've built the site. As you know, the program started in December. So you can go take a look at the site. It's got terrific blog content from, both, the artists and the audiences. It's got a sort of map of where we're going. It's got all of our partners that we're reaching. And so it's an ability to look at the program in its totality and begin to see the impact build. And I think, as we go on I think there'll be opportunities to, as you say, revisit some of those conversations.
Jo Reed: One of your events in Washington, DC is to screen all ten movies down at the mall.
Keri Putnam: Right.
Jo Reed: Explain the significance of this.
Keri Putnam: Right. This piece of the program in Washington, DC where we're going to screen all ten of the films on the National Mall in one night simultaneously, and follow it with a celebration of the Film Forward program, outside the Smithsonian Castle, it's not a regular component of the program. In so far as, we're not arguing that the audiences here in DC are under served for access to independent film or part of our outreach process, specifically. But what we are trying to do is highlight here in Washington, where decisions are made, about the role of the arts and generating dialogue. The role of film in creating community and in, sort of, reflecting the diversity of our society. I think we are trying to highlight this program as one way that cultural diplomacy can take place in a very unexpected setting, I think, around the world. And I think by highlighting the program here, inviting audiences to see these films here, and to take part in celebrating what the program is, hopefully, will draw some attention to the work that we're doing. And, you know, maybe, there'll be other ideas from this community that get generated to use the arts in these ways.
Jo Reed: You know, it's interesting, because in the film, "A Small Act," so many of the characters speak eloquently about the importance of education.
Keri Putnam: Yes.
Jo Reed: Not just to raise people from poverty, but to overcome prejudice, to broaden not just their mind, but their hearts. And I wonder if there's some way that Film Forward is, sort of, illustrating how the arts can fill that same role?
Keri Putnam: I think Film Forward is a perfect illustration of how the arts can fill the role of expanding people's minds, as well as their hearts. Because you have stories that certainly you can engage with the stories on the basis of the themes they deal with and the issues that they raise. But you're also engaging with them as you do with any great story, on a personal emotional level. And you have an opportunity to talk to the storyteller directly. And to really talk with them about the roots of where the story came from for them. And how you've connected to it. And share that experience on a deeply personal level. And I think that actually allows an audience to engage even more deeply, in turn, in the thematic issues. Because they have connected to something emotionally.
Jo Reed: What do you think cultural diplomacy allows one to do, perhaps, that normal diplomatic avenues does not?
Keri Putnam: Well, I have no direct experience with, you know, traditional diplomacy, you know, personally. But I would say if you look at the range of tools to allow people to deepen understanding across perceived boundaries and borders, or actual boundaries and borders. The idea that a true and deeper personal reflection of what one culture is like that can be presented to another culture that may not have an opportunity to see us fully, based on the media they get or other efforts that are made that are coming from, you know, a political or even a military point of view. This is an opportunity, I think, to reflect a different aspect of our culture. You don't see anywhere else, I think, the stories of America, for example, that you would see in "Amreeka." Or that you would see in, even, "Winter's Bone." Many of the stories that are set here tell a part of the American story that isn't very widely available elsewhere in the world. And, equally, the international stories, I think, enlighten American audiences about parts of the world, like "Son of Babylon" in Iraq that they may not have understood. And I don't feel that there's any kind of substitute for that, sort of, personal intimate emotional storytelling to help cultures understand one another. And that's at the heart of diplomacy.
Jo Reed: Okay. So let me ask you a personal question, which is what was it that made you look at film and say, "That's where I want to spend my life?"
Keri Putnam: Right. Well, I actually started in theatre. So, for me, personally, what I believe in is storytelling. And I studied theatre. And the way a culture's story's reflected, I mean, going back as far as you can go back, I've always been very interested in that. And I feel oftentimes what gets comodified in the commercial storytelling culture that we have isn't necessarily as diverse and true a reflection of the society we live in. As the films that come out of, you know, more independent voices. So, for me, it's always been a passion, whether it's in theatre-- and Sundance has a terrific theatre program, as well. Whether it's in theatre, documentary, narrative, the idea of that art form and that emotional connection both is just something unto itself that I truly love. But, also, it's something that has an ability to reflect our culture in a way that's very true and meaningful. That's always driven me.
Jo Reed: Okay. What do you think is the biggest challenge that young filmmakers are facing now?
Keri Putnam: The biggest challenge young filmmakers are facing now is distribution. And I think Film Forward is not an answer to that. It's one response to that. And, certainly, you know, a partial opportunity for certain films to get seen where they wouldn't. But the distribution situation that independent filmmakers find themselves in is certainly they can post their film on the Internet. Or they can get their film into a theatre, possibly, through a lot of elbow grease. But breaking through the clutter of all the media that's out there, and getting recognized and getting noticed, without having the means to marketing campaign and, you know, do the sort of outreach that the bigger organizations do. That's probably the biggest challenge. I would say even bigger today than financing.
Jo Reed: And, finally, what is the most heartening or exciting development?
Keri Putnam: Well, I think the most heartening development, if you look at, for example, this year's Sundance Film Festival is a reflection of what the state of the world is in film. We got 10,000 submissions to our festival this year, including short films. And this isn't coming from, you know, LA and New York. This is coming from all over the world. You know, a lot of the films that we feature at Sundance are international and domestic from all sorts of regions. So what it says to me is that people are beginning to embrace this form of personal expression. And that there's a media literate generation coming up that really wants to tell its own story. And I think that's terribly exciting, in terms of what we'll see in the future.
Jo Reed: That's great, Keri Putnam. Thank you.
Keri Putnam: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Keri Putnam. She’s heads Film Forward. Film Forward is an initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The films for the program’s second year have just been announced. They include: Another Earth, Beginners, and The Green Wave. Among their destinations: Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, Morocco and India. To find about all the films and their destinations and for more information about the project, go to Sundance.org and click on Film Forward.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpt from “Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
Special thanks to the folks at the Sundance Institute.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, Brenda Wineapple discusses her biography of Emily Dickinson.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.