This year at the Sundance Film Festival, three feature documentaries — Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s “Aftershock,” Reid Davenport’s “I Didn’t See You There” and Isabel Castro’s “Mija” — share in common a $10,000 grant provided by the Points North Institute and CNN Films’ American Stories Documentary Fund.
Launched in 2020, the fund underwritten by CNN has dispensed a total of $100,000 in grants to emerging U.S. filmmakers working on 10 documentary projects that highlight pivotal moments in America. Eiselt and Lewis Lee’s “Aftershock,” and Davenport’s “I Didn’t See You There” are two of nine films in the Sundance U.S. Documentary Competition program, while Castro’s “Mija” is featured in the festival’s Next program. “Aftershock” addresses the U.S. maternal health crisis, “I Didn’t See You There” examines the discrimination people with disabilities face throughout the country, and “Mija” explores America’s immigration issues via music manager Doris Muñoz.
The fund replaced the annual, week-long Camden Intl. Film Festival/Tribeca Film Institute filmmaker retreat, which was founded in partnership with CNN Films and ran from 2015 through 2019. Like the fund, the Camden/TFI retreat nurtured emerging filmmakers with project feedback sessions and mentorship support. But when TFI unexpectedly dismantled in 2020 and the pandemic hit, Ben Fowlie, executive and artistic director of the Points North Institute and founder of Camden Intl. Film Festival, decided to rebrand the program and implement grant funding.
“At the time, we were trying to figure out how to maintain our commitment to the documentary field in a time when they needed it most,” says Fowlie. “Providing funding seemed like an impactful way to do that. But while the name of the program has changed, the type of filmmakers we are looking for and certainly the type of stories that we’re looking for hasn’t changed.”
Eiselt, Lewis Lee and Castro received their grants in 2020. Davenport was a 2021 recipient along with Sierra Urich (“Joonam”), Matthew Hashiguchi (“The Only Doctor”), Chelsea Hernandez, Heather Courtney, Princess Hairston (“Untitled 19th News Film”) and Fiz Olajide (“Untitled Underground Railroad Ride”).
“Even though these projects are not necessarily something that CNN Films is going to program, it’s important to us to still be an active member of the documentary community and bolster the next generation of filmmakers,” says Alexandra Hannibal, director for CNN Films. “The Fund allows folks that are in the early stages of their career to not feel as alone.”
The latest round of fund recipients partook in a year-long virtual residency that included rough-cut feedback sessions, masterclasses with docu producers, directors, and editors, and one-on-one guidance from industry veterans including producer Andrea Meditch (“Buck”), director Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble,” “The Way I See It”) and editor Jean Tsien (“76 Days”).
Tsien also served as a mentor at the 2019 Camden/TFI Retreats, where she worked with directors Eugene Yi and Julie Ha on a project called “Free Chol Soo Lee.” After the retreat, Tsien joined the production as supervising editor. “Free Chol Soo Lee” debuted at Sundance on Jan. 21.