Alumni, students and faculty feature at the Sundance Film Festival

February 16, 2023

From left to right clockwise: Tsanavi Spoonhunter, Lucas Guilkey, Lauren Schwartzman, Pete nicks, Sean Havey, JoeBill Muñoz, Nani Sahra Walker, Jigar Mehta, Professor Jennifer Redfearn, Violet Feng, Sam Grant and Don Loeb (BA Economics/PreMed ‘90, tech executive and husband of Carrie Lozano).

In January, over a dozen alumni joined industry guests and hosts Professor Jennifer Redfearn, Jigar Mehta (’05), Duc Pham (BS ’02) and alumni regent Amanda Pouchot at the annual “Cal @ Sundance” event in Park City, Utah. The campus conclave celebrates the community of Berkeley alumni involved in the prestigious festival.

Berkeley Journalism’s rich history with the festival dates back to Professor Jon Else, who won the first-ever Grand Jury Prize in documentary in 1980 for “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.” A decade later, two of alum and Professor Marlon Riggs’ (’81) films “Color Adjustment” and “Black Is…Black Ain’t” would premiere there, each garnering nominations for the Grand Jury Prize.

Since then, dozens of documentary filmmakers coming out of the program have had works honored at Sundance, and in 2017, alum Pete Nicks (’99) won the Sundance Directing Prize, the first Berkeley Journalism graduate to do so.

Nicks and three other alums were there to screen films, including his co-creators Sean Havey (’14) and Gaby Arvizu (’16) of the much buzzed about “Underrated,” featuring the breakout story of NBA superstar Stephen Curry.

From left to right: Lucas Guilkey, Nani Sahra Walker, Samantha Grant, Lauren Schwartzman, Rae De Leon and Violet Feng.

“My first Sundance experience was in 1999 when Jon Else premiered his vérité film “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle,” which won the festival’s Director’s Prize,” Nicks said. “From that moment forward, I dreamed of the opportunity to screen a film at the festival. That dream came true 18 years later when Jon and I (he was an executive producer) took our film “The Force” to the festival, where it also won the Director’s Prize. The associate producer on that film, Sean Havey (’14), went on to shoot and produce my next three films, two of which premiered at Sundance. Those films also included several J-School grads including Emma Cott (’09), N’Jeri Eaton (’10), Pendarvis Harshaw (’14), Gaby Arvizu (’16), Niema Jordan (’16), and Myah Overstreet (’23).”

This year, Nicks said, was an especially emotional year for him to be back at Sundance after two years of virtual screenings. “It is also one of the first batch of documentaries made by Proximity Media, the company I co-founded with Ryan Coogler. Along with Gaby Arvizu (’16) who joined the company nearly two years ago, we were proud to share this movie about an iconic athlete so beloved by the Bay Area community and whose story reminds us of the power of family and community in overcoming the odds. It was a night I will never forget; the fruits of a seed planted in 1997 in the documentary lab at North Gate Hall.”

Pete Nicks (left) and Stephen Curry attend the press line of Stephen Curry: Underrated by Peter Nicks, an official selection of the Special Screenings Program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess

Rae de Leon (’14) made her first appearance at Sundance as both the subject and the producer of “Victim/Suspect,” which premiered as an official selection in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The film is the result of a four-year investigation into cases in which police charged self-reporting sexual assault and rape victims with a crime. Five current Berkeley Journalism students and recent graduates worked on the film: Elena Neale-Sacks (’22), Betty Márquez Rosales (’20) and Skyler Glover (’21) were researchers and Myah Overstreet (’23) and Buddy Terry (’23) were production assistants on local shoots.

Lauren Schwartzman (’18) was at Sundance as the associate editor of “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” a revelatory portrait of the charismatic author, feminist sex researcher and former model Shere Hite, which premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The film was directed by the Oscar-nominated director of “Crip Camp” which Schwartzman was associate producer and assistant editor on.

Curator, producer and educator Nani Sahra Walker (’18) served on the panel “Creating with Pride: Queer South Asian Artists” featuring South Asian creatives who bring their LGBTQ+ perspectives to their work in Hollywood and beyond.

Rae de Leon (’14) (second from left), cast and crew attend the press line of Victim/Suspect by Nancy Schwartzman, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Rachael Galipo

“Jigar and Duc have brought this extraordinary community together every year to discuss art, journalism, and the power of documentary film,” Jennifer Redfearn, director of the documentary program said. “After two years of remote film festivals, it was so exciting to work with our advancement team Steve Katz, Anh Tran, and Lia Swindle and alumni regent Amanda Pouchot to bring this close-knit community back together and celebrate our alums and their remarkable achievements.”

The powerful community of documentary alums is deep and long-lasting, built over the past 30 years, noted Geeta Anand, Berkeley Journalism dean. “They are forming friendships and professional relationships that help sustain them throughout their careers. As an educator, I really couldn’t want for more.”

The Sundance festival is as much about community as it is about showcasing new work, said Carrie Lozano (‘05), director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film and Artist Programs, whose films “The Weather Underground” and “Utopia in Four Movements” premiered at Sundance.

“Whether they are screening films, attending as industry, or are supported through one of Sundance’s funds, fellowships, or labs, Berkeley’s presence shows the breadth of groundbreaking storytellers and thought leaders that emerge from the school,” Lozano said.

Others in attendance included Violet Feng (’04), whose directorial debut “Hidden Letters” about Nüshu — an ancient, secret, women-only language originating in China — was recently shortlisted for the 2023 Oscars in the Documentary Feature Film category.

From left to right: Producer Joe Terranova, Co-Director/Producer Jessie Deeter, Director/Producer Sarah McClure

JoeBill Muñoz (’19) and Lucas Guilkey (‘19) attended as Sundance Documentary Film Program grantees currently directing and producing an independent feature documentary about solitary confinement in California prisons.

Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute nonfiction film director, producer and writer Tsanavi Spoonhunter (’20) was also there as a grantee. Her first feature-length documentary, “Holder of the Sky”— a modern-day American story of colonization that documents three Wisconsin Tribes’ battle to reclaim the historic treaty promises— was supported by the 2022 Sundance Institute Humanities Sustainability Fellowship, and the Sundance Institute Indigenous Film Fund Fellowship. Spoonhunter also attended the inaugural Indigenous House sponsored by the Sundance Indigenous Program and Illuminative.

Sarah McClure (‘15) attended Sundance to “watch films and meet with contacts”. She is currently directing and producing her first feature documentary with PBS, “In Plain Sight,” with Jessie Deeter (’01) co-directing and producing. It is based on her award-winning investigation about a coverup of Amish sexual abuse, which was published in Cosmopolitan.

-Marlena Telvick

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