It’s been a great year for Middle-Eastern cinema, bringing acclaim for such filmmakers as Egypt-raised Sally El Hosaini (“My Brother the Devil”), Saudi Arabian Haifaa Al Mansour (“Wadjda”) and Israel’s Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”). Scratch the surface of these success stories and you’ll find an unlikely American ally: Sundance — not the festival, but the institute’s development-oriented Feature Film Program, spearheaded by Michelle Satter.
Since 1981, the Sundance Institute has been responsible for encouraging and educating many of America’s most celebrated filmmakers via its year-round creative labs in Utah. But Robert Redford’s vision of supporting independent voices was never meant to stop at America’s borders.
“We’re going to reach at least 70 artists through our various labs this year, many of them abroad,” says Satter, citing the Middle East as one of the regions where she and her colleagues (namely newly appointed international director Paul Federbush and predecessor Alicia Weston) saw an opportunity to help cultivate vital new voices. “We keep our ears to the ground, listening to identify where there is change going on and a need for an organization to go in and promote freedom of expression.”
The institute is now eight years into its partnership with Jordan’s Royal Film Commission. Together they host a Sundance satellite program called Rawi modeled on the Utah screenwriters lab, which invites storytellers — many of them women — from the surrounding area to workshop their projects with professional mentors.
Among Rawi’s inaugural fellows was Cherien Dabis, who grew up in a small Ohio town but spent most of her summers in Jordan. The “Amreeka” director, who subsequently developed her second feature (2013 fest opener “May in the Summer”) at the Utah lab, says the Jordan retreat embodied the spirit of Sundance but provided a completely different experience, largely because of its remote location.
In Utah, the cold weather kept everybody indoors, but in Jordan, the fellows gather in an eco-lodge in the middle of the desert. “There’s no electricity, except in the media room, so at night, it’s all candlelit,” she recalls. “You’re incredibly isolated, lounging in Bedouin tents and sipping tea, hanging out with camels and goats and sheeps, talking about Middle Eastern storytelling with advisers who come from thousands of miles away.”
After “Amreeka” was done, Dabis returned to the lab to screen and discuss the film. “Then I went back as an adviser, and it was even more inspiring,” she says.
Satter swears by “deep commitment,” both to individual filmmakers (the institute stays in touch with past fellows, offering feedback and funding where possible until their projects reach the market) and entire regions. “To us, finding a partner organization in any part of the world is key. We want to have labs that are sustainable,” she says, citing the institute’s first international lab — in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Guillermo del Toro was a fellow — which producer Bertha Navarro continues to host in Oaxaca.
But the institute isn’t opposed to one-offs when the conditions are right, which is how the 2010 mini-lab in Tel Aviv program came about.
“We have a long history of supporting Israeli storytellers,” Satter says. “There were three filmmakers we were considering for our January screenwriters lab, but for various reasons they weren’t available, so we thought, ‘Let’s bring the lab to them.’ ”
Burshtein participated in the Tel Aviv program, which gave her the confidence to pursue her long-dormant passion for cinema. “I graduated Sam Spiegel Film Institute in Jerusalem, and then I became religious, so for 20 years, I wasn’t involved in anything to do with film,” says Burshtein, whose script — a unique insider portrait of the Orthodox Jewish world — caught the institute’s eye. “It was right before we started casting, which was really the right stage, because everything was pretty much alive, and I was open to anything that would make it better.”
Unlike Burshtein and Dabis (a Columbia grad), “Wadjda” director Al Mansour had never been to film school. In fact, public cinemas didn’t exist in Saudi Arabia until recently, so her Rawi experience provided invaluable training in the fundamentals of structure and storytelling.
“I wanted to have something that is universal and can travel,” says the helmer, who had written an ending where one of the main characters dies. “It was very bleak, but I was so married to that idea because the situation in Saudi is bad. Thanks to them, I changed the whole third act.” The film went on to win the Art Cinema prize at the Venice film festival, landing a deal with Sony Pictures Classics for release later this year.
Filmmakers flex options | Target titles | Grindhouse meets arthouse | Labs offer Mid East voice lessons | Five’s who’ll thrive