By Erin Casper, 2011 Fellow
A few months ago, I had the great opportunity to attend Sundance 2013 with two projects: a feature-length documentary film called American Promise and a short narrative film called Gun. I started working on both films around the same time in late 2011 and worked on both for almost a year. I was on American Promise full time and on Gun whenever my director Spencer Gillis and my co-editor Adam Brown and I could squeeze in time at night and on weekends around our day-jobs and other side jobs.
Park CityWhen I began working on the films I knew both sets of directors had their sights set on submitting to Sundance in late fall. I hoped both would get in, but tried to keep my expectations low. Needless to say, I was floored that both of them were accepted and that I would get to “double dip,” as my American Promise co-editors put it.
On the first Saturday of the festival, the Gun crew piled into our rented van and headed out to Salt Lake City for our world premiere in Shorts Program IV. I don’t know if it’s just my luck, but I find shorts to be pretty hit or miss, so I wasn’t sure what to really expect going in. My uncertainty immediately evaporated as soon as the show started. We were in seriously good company. One of my favorite films in our program was called On Suffocation, which is about the execution of two male lovers who are hanged by a few jail guards for violating laws against homosexuality in an unspecified county. It was a brutal but masterful piece at only seven minutes long. In the Q&A that followed, Writer/Director Jenifer Malmqvist explained that she purposely chose to leave out dialogue because homosexuality is punishable by death in seven countries, and she felt the story should represent anyone who is persecuted in any of those countries. I made a mental note to think of ways I could incorporate that idea into future work.
The "American Promise" cast and crew.The following Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Inauguration, and the premiere of American Promise. Again, we were in good company. American Promise is a 13-year story chronicling the entire education of two Brooklyn-born, African American boys who are sent to one of the country’s most prestigious private prep schools. Overall, there was a ballpark figure of 700-800 hours of footage which my co-editors Mary Manhardt and Andrew Siwoff waded through in about 11 months. Creating the architecture for such an extensive story in that timeframe felt like an achievement unto itself, let alone premiering at Sundance.
Both families and the boys—Idris and Seun—were there, as well as most of the crew who worked on the film over the years. It was the first time so many of us were together in the same room.
Idris and SeunThe thing that makes me the most nervous about a premiere is meeting the subjects for the first time and sitting through the film with them as they watch themselves with a live audience. American Promise has been exceptional in this instance because not only were one of the families directing and producing the film, but I had also met many of the subjects, including the two boys, long before the film was finished. Despite having less distance than usual from the subjects, I still felt very protective of everyone and hoped they would like the film. To me, there is no greater validation in my work than the participants being proud to be a part of the finished film—especially in the case of Idris and Seun, who were documented from age 5 to 18. Mary, Andrew and I came to care very much for the boys as we watched them grow on film, and we did not want to let them down. As luck should have it, I happened to sit right in front of Idris, Seun and their friends and siblings, and they provided a running commentary of their reactions—joking and laughing with and at each other. From what I could hear, they seemed to like it and enjoy the audience cheering them on.
Aside from eavesdropping on the boys, I spied on audience reactions. The laughs hit where they should, there were audible sniffs, a few gasps and tisks that all fell in their intended places. The mood in the room felt great, and I couldn’t have asked for a more engaged audience, especially since the film’s running time is 140 minutes! Once it was all over, we got a standing ovation. It was really cool to see everything come full circle for the families after such a long journey with this film.
Later that night we had our after party at an art gallery on Main Street.Jonathan Batiste and the Stay Human Band performed. We danced until they had to close the gallery so we marched down Main Street and took over Black House and had an even larger party. We danced for hours.
The next day I attended a filmmaker panel about the New York Times’ new opinion journalism feature called Op-Docs. The panel highlighted Op-Docs from notable documentary directors Laura Poitras, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing and discussed the first year of the Op-Doc series. They also premiered two new pieces by directors Dawn Porter and Roger Ross Williams, which were based on their Sundance-selected films Gideon’s Army and God Loves Uganda, respectively. I got to edit Dawn's Op-Doc, called True Believers In Justice. The piece follows a young public defender named Travis who has fully committed his life—and skin, as you’ll see in the piece—to giving fair representation to indigent clients in the South. I got to meet Travis at the panel and personally thank him for his work, and he couldn’t have been more humble. A woman standing next to me called him an American Hero. “I’m just a regular person,” he replied.
I really enjoyed working with Dawn on the Op-Doc. Gideon’s Army had considerable success at the festival—cheers to the whole team!
On the last day of the festival American Promise received a Special Jury Prize for Achievement in Filmmaking. It felt like an accurate description in our work as a large, protracted family of collaborators. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of that.
I also got to celebrate the end of Sundance with my fellow Schmellow Lindsay Utz! We danced and caught up on the past year. It was so cathartic. Lindsay reminded me that us editors always need to support each other—of course I agreed!
In between all of this, I got to see films and connect with fellow filmmakers and editors. I left Sundance 2013 feeling grateful for an incredible end to a challenging and busy year and came away with a deeper love of what I do.