Sudeep Sharma: Searching for Australian documentaries that stand out for Sundance

March 9, 2020
The Sundance Documentary programmer discusses what catches his eye at the Australian International Documentary Conference in Melbourne.

As programmer for Sundance, one of the most prestigious festivals that showcase independent films, Sudeep Sharma discovers and nurtures some of the world’s most cutting-edge documentaries.

Originally from New Jersey, Sharma – who has a BA in English from George Washington University, and an MA and Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA – has previously been an Associate Programmer for Sundance and a Programmer for festivals including Aspen ShortsFest and Tribeca.

In the current, post-Parasite landscape of buyers hungry for global content, where documentaries like the Adam Goodes story The Australian Dream and 2040 have enjoyed sustained international success and documentaries are being sold for record prices, there has arguably never been more demand for stories which resonate globally.

We spoke with Sharma to find out what Sundance is looking for, and how Australian documentary practitioners can stand out on the world stage.

What are you looking for when you watch a documentary? How do Australian documentary practitioners get your attention?

We’re looking for films that have unique voices. Unique subject matters, creative and visionary storytelling and singular experiences. For Australian documentary filmmakers, the question is: “what are the stories they want to tell that no one else can really tell?” Are they doing it in a way that’s personal and unique to their own experiences and their own art form? It’s about putting something out there that’s special and different.

What makes a voice, or a film stand out when you watch a documentary?

There are some subjects that grab the world’s attention and are important. But I think because of that, there are lots of people telling that same story. And they’re all valuable, but the challenge is being unique. I think, we, specifically, at our festival, try to discover new voices and new filmmaking styles. People that can really sustain a narrative or a story with compelling characters and subjects for a feature length project. A documentary is not just a portrait. It must be a compelling story. It doesn’t have to be about an amazing subject, it can be about a person, it depends on what that story is of that person.

 The documentary The Australian Dream had a fantastic run internationally playing the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals last year. Is there more of an opportunity for traditionally “small” stories by Australian documentary filmmakers to screen at overseas festivals?

Yes, absolutely. I think films that are very specific about their place in some contradictory way become more universal, by being more specific. Honeyland, for example, is about a Macedonian beekeeper, but because it’s so artfully and empathetically done, people see connections to their own world.

For us as a festival, we are very lucky that we get a lot of submissions, both in narrative films and documentaries. I would say in Australia, and everywhere, the filmmaking community and practitioners are just getting stronger and stronger, and there’s been incredible filmmaking development. In New Zealand and across Oceania, Asia, everywhere, the quality of films is just getting better. We’re very lucky that we get to consider this stuff and be a platform for these films.

 What are your thoughts on the global distribution landscape for documentaries at the moment?

It’s an interesting moment. This last year of the festival, some documentaries sold for the most money than documentaries have sold ever there. Documentaries have been setting records in terms of sales. I think a big factor that’s driving that is the streamers. They don’t need to make money back in a theatrical way the same as other buyers would. I think there’s a lot of different opinions on whether this is good or bad, but the reality is that it means filmmakers are making more money, some of them more than they’ve ever sold a film for. The streaming demand is also warping the sense of what theatrical releases are and what is a successful release.

That being said, I think the one big thing that’s come out of the last year is that a film like Honeyland has done amazing theatrically. Not just economically, but people have had a real emotional connection to it. It was the first documentary nominated for an International Feature Film Oscar. Audiences really want to watch these stories, and now there’s a growing awareness that this is true, which I don’t think has existed before. I think it’s an exciting time for documentaries.

Are viewers being exposed more to stories from around the world with the advent of these online platforms?

Yes, I think part of that is due to the streamers. There’s more interest in people watching documentaries. I think before services like Amazon and Netflix, the only way people would get documentaries at home was through TV or home video. With the streamers, stories are programmed for you. Anecdotally, you’re hearing about people just watching more documentaries. I think these companies are just realising that there’s an audience for it.

On the other hand, with the theatrical feature documentary, I think there’s an interest there that has always existed but now it’s at a level that is new.

With the breakout financial and critical success of foreign-language films like Parasite, do you think there will be an increased demand from buyers for diverse stories in documentaries?

I think so, yes. Both Honeyland and Parasite were distributed by Neon [in the US].

I think the big picture is the mass audience is broken up into niches. The only films that have that level of mass appeal are Marvel films and big tentpole movies. True independent cinema has always existed, but now there’s so many ways to watch these movies and there’s people hungry for those stories. I think part of the reason Parasite did so well is that it’s about something that people are feeling, and even though it’s a fictional story, they really related to it, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Korean, or American or in English-language.

I think the same thing is happening with documentaries. People want reality. They want to hear those types of stories. I think that at Sundance, we’ve had a long track record of programming documentaries by filmmakers we think are amazing, who make movies that people should see. There’s an excitement and awareness of those stories that’s always been there. But I think it’s now really, really growing. Sundance is about going to find the out there. Something you’ve never heard of or seen before.

What does the spotlight at Sundance provide to a documentary?

Internationally, I think it’s a place where the US industry is. Being there gives you a connection to this industry. It puts you in context with the films we’re playing. I think that’s a huge benefit. Other festivals are looking towards our line-up as well. It helps in terms of opening doors to other places.

Increasingly, more commercial producers and films are looking at the talent at Sundance as someone that they could work with on other projects that are not independent. And that’s great because they’re getting a career.

The head of Sundance for the last 11 years, John Cooper, has just stood down to become Emeritus Director. Many have said the future of Sundance relies on discovery and diversity. What is the future for documentaries at the festival?

John Cooper’s successor is Tabitha Jackson, who was formerly head of the Sundance Documentary Fund. Cooper helped build the documentary program in the festival. With Tabitha having had such an in-depth background in documentary, I think things will just continue to get stronger for documentaries.

Whilst diversity is part of looking at independent people and films, we don’t have a quota or set number we are trying to reach. We try and bake diversity in our process of considering films and by having a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives on the programming staff. We’re trying to find the best films and what ends up happening is that the best films are about people that aren’t being heard under certain circumstances, that’s what makes them unique. I think that will continue because that’s part of the ethos of the festival.

I’m excited to work with Tabitha and see what’s going to happen. Documentaries are a big part of the festival. It’s her background. With streamers buying documentaries, there’s a level of interest that’s never existed before.

Tabitha Jackson at The Movie That Blew My Mind, a festival panel at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Maya Dehlin.

Tabitha is the first woman and first person born outside the US to become director of the festival. Can you tell us about her vison for the festival going forward?

Tabitha is the first non-American, first woman, first non-white person running the festival. It’s an exciting and bold hire and I think she has great vision and taste. I think she also is very aware of the history of the festival and wants it to improve and continue.

What do you think will define the core focus of Sundance in its new era?

I think the focus will remain on being independent, backing artists and visionary creators in open, collaborative and supportive ways. Supporting artists to create their stories, in a way that isn’t beholden to commercial needs or product delivery. I think that will continue to be the impulse of the festival.

Main photo credit: Programmer Sudeep Sharma introduces the World Premiere of Beast Beast by Danny Madden, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Jovelle Tamayo.

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