Alums feature at Sundance Film Festival

February 5, 2021

From top left: Gaby Arvizu (’16), Pete Nicks (’99), Sean Havey (’14), Angèlica Ekeke (’20), Lauren Kawana (‘14), Carrie Lozano (‘05)  Sam Green (’93) and Adithya Sambamurthy (’10).

Eight Berkeley Journalism alumni featured prominently at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Four were producers on new cinema vérité documentaries on education equity, one a story producer and editor on a documentary short about a Native Hawaiian queer slam poet, and two pushed boundaries presenting live performances and one recently joined the Sundance Institute as part of the leadership of its Documentary Film Program. 

Pete Nicks (’99), Sean Havey (’14) and Gaby Arvizu‘s (’16) documentary “Homeroom”— following the Oakland High School Class of 2020, explores an ensemble cast coming of age against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world — premiered, completing shooter/director Nicks’ trilogy of films exploring the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice and education in Oakland, California. 

The first film in the series, “The Waiting Room,” focusing on the patients and staff of Highland Hospital in East Oakland, was shortlisted for an Academy Award and won the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit award. The second, “The Force,” — examining the Oakland Police Department during a time of turmoil for police departments across the nation — earned Nicks the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. (Former Prof. Jon Else, who won the first-ever documentary prize at the Festival in 1980, was the film’s executive producer.)

“The first time I really understood the significance of Sundance was when Jon Else won the directing prize for “Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle” in 1999,” said Nicks, who is now a celebrated director. “I was a second year, and me and a bunch of friends from his doc class road-tripped out to Park City. I think a speeding ticket was involved.

“This inspired me to try to make it there one day with one of my own films. And along the way I collaborated with mostly my J-School fam! I couldn’t be prouder that all three films in my trilogy were made with alums: N’Jeri Eaton (‘10), Emma Cott (‘09), Singeli Agnew (‘07), Patrick Kollman (‘11), Mark Oltmanns (‘12), Vanessa Rancaño (‘14), Pendarvis Harshaw (‘14), Sean Havey and Gaby Arvizu. And we made it to Sundance with the last two. 

“It’s rare for indie filmmakers to be able to share their work with audiences on such a ‘large stage’ and feel the emotional responses from people watching your film, the one you toiled on with many collaborators over many months and years. It’s the culmination of what is always a grueling process during which you question your own sanity on multiple occasions. So to get all these films over the finish line…with the help of my J-School friends…has truly been a humbling and gratifying experience.” 

Sean Havey, the film’s cinematographer and producer said, “It’s been so rewarding working with Pete Nicks over the years. His first film in the trilogy was released when I was still in J-School studying documentary with Jon Else. I loved that film and was inspired by it. Then, right out of school, I got to work with Pete filling various positions on ‘The Force.’ I’m proud to have been able to help close out the trilogy.” 

And while premiering at Sundance is just part of the rollercoaster, Havey said, “we made it in only 18 months from start to finish. Meeting that aggressive timeline in itself was a huge reward.” 

Fellow alum Gaby Arvizu, he said, was “the perfect choice” to be the associate producer on the film. “She’s from Oakland, graduated from Oakland High School (where the film is set) and is a J-school alumnus. I can’t wait to work with her again.” 

“Working with Pete and Sean has always felt natural,” Arvizu said. “When we were in the field, we were always in sync and when we talked story, I always felt heard. Learning first-hand about vérité from Pete and Sean has definitely shifted my approach to filmmaking. It was an honor to help capture the stories of these amazing young people, and watching ‘Homeroom’ at Sundance was a dream come true. 

“It has always been a goal for me to cover stories about the city that raised me and stories about the first-generation experience. I feel so proud to have worked alongside an amazing crew to see Oakland at Sundance.”

Lauren Kawana (‘14) was a field producer on a film about a high school across the Bay: “Try Harder!” examining the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity at Lowell High School, the top-ranked public school in San Francisco.

“I was very lucky to have learned from director Debbie Lum during my time at the J-School, along with the inimitable Spencer Nakasako,” Kawana said. “They have made major contributions to the visibility of Asian-American experiences through their work. I was honored to relive high school with the talented Lou Nakasako (“Try Harder!” producer and also Spencer’s son!) and contribute to Asian-American youth getting to see their stories on screen, especially on a platform like Sundance.

“I’m also very proud of my classmate Sean Havey. It feels like just yesterday we were watching each other’s assemblies in the doc lab with Jon Else and laughing at all our mistakes. Big congrats to him, the incredible Pete Nicks, and Gaby Arvizu. I love my J-School community — we’re so lucky to have each other as we navigate the weird world of filmmaking and cheer each other on.”

Adithya Sambamurthy (’10), who was a story producer and editor on ‘This Is the Way We Rise‘, said, “I’m just happy for director Ciara Lacy and all of us who worked hard to make this film under challenging circumstances. It’s the first time anything I’ve worked on has screened at Sundance, and it feels like validation for all of our efforts. Exciting to see so many alums at Sundance, go J-School!”

Documentary filmmaker Sam Green (’93) presented “7 Sounds” — an immersive, live-streamed audio-video work that explores the universal influence of sound —during New Frontier. It is the third “live documentary” he has presented at Sundance. In 2018, he took the stage with classical music group Kronos Quartet to create “A Thousand Thoughts,” chronologically unfolding the quartet’s groundbreaking, multi-decade career. He also presented the premiere of “Utopia in Four Movements” in 2010 and “The Measure of All Things” in 2014. 

“For documentary filmmakers like myself, Sundance is a lodestar premiering a film there is huge,” said Green. “In the past 10 years, I’ve been making a kind of ‘live documentary’ hybrid form of work, and premiering this kind of piece at Sundance has been a huge thrill as well as an important way to get my work out to my peers as well as a broader public. Sundance is a big stamp of approval and premiering a film there opens many doors.” 

Green’s documentary “The Weather Underground,” — produced with fellow alum Carrie Lozano (‘05)— premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, was nominated for an Academy Award, and was included in the Whitney Biennial, the longest-running survey of American art.

Immersive visual journalist, photographer, filmmaker and composer Angèlica Ekeke (’20) headlined the Amazon Studios Producer Awards with a performance of a visual symphony.

Pete Nicks (’99), Prof. Jon Else and Carrie Lozano (’05) at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Lozano, who has had three films premiere at Sundance, said, “It’s always thrilling to watch new work at Sundance, but this year is particularly meaningful as it required a level of ingenuity and resilience to produce and finish work during the pandemic. Sundance is a space for visionary artists and voices, and it’s a particular delight to see alumni showcased at the festival, from Pete Nicks’ ‘Homeroom’ to Sam Green’s ‘7 Sounds’ to the indelible piece that Angèlica Ekeke produced for our Producers Celebration, I hope students are inspired by the craft and creativity that are hallmarks of our alumni.” 

-Marlena Telvick

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