By Lisa Robinson

Greetings from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah! Now, we understand that most people won’t have an opportunity to attend Sundance, but film festivals in general are more accessible than one might think – and often require little to no travel at all. At WITNESS, we think there are a number of reasons why it’s beneficial for NGOs like us to be in this particular space, or spaces similar to it – and we’d like to share a few of those reasons with you below.

 1.     Networking and relationship building

Volunteering for Sundance in my home state of Utah is what inspired my personal career trajectory and ultimately led me to WITNESS (the dream!). The power of storytelling and visual imagery for social justice and accountability is a deeply embedded belief at WITNESS – and for me personally, that inspiration was born in Utah at Sundance years ago.

If the Sundance Film Festival is considered the premier festival for independent filmmaking in both narrative and documentary form, we know that our partners, peers and allies will also be in this space – especially on the documentary film front. The mutual support of our allies is essential to what we’re both trying to accomplish: build social movements, transparency and accountability through nonfiction storytelling. We know that the continued cultivation of these relationships – both new and old – will benefit both parties down the road.

For instance, last year we caught a screening of THE SQUARE (which received a formal nomination for an Academy Award yesterday), as it focuses on a post-Revolutionary Cairo told through the eyes of citizen journalists, among others. Members of Mosireen, a group that is part of WITNESS’ “Video-for-Change” network, are featured in THE SQUARE. Next week, almost one-year to the date later, WITNESS is hosting a screening of the film in New York.

2.     Networking and relationship building can lead to fundraising for your mission

WITNESS at its heart and core is a human rights organization. But, since we are a human rights video organization that sits at the intersection of media, technology and social justice, indeed we are rather niche when it comes to our approach to human rights work. Today, documentaries may receive funding via institutional grants, among other sources of revenue and support. These grants come through media and freedom of expression programs and/or special film initiatives at philanthropic foundations, i.e. JustFilms at the Ford Foundation, or Documentary Film Grants at the MacArthur Foundation.

Yes, the two mentioned foundations are larger, more recognizable names in the field – but smaller, private family foundations also share similar mandates. Chances are, if these funders are investing in worthy documentary films with social content and campaigns, it’s a good possibility your mission and use of media to inform and inspire will captivate them, too.

One of the things that I appreciate most about Sundance and the film festival experience is how open festival goers are to conversation and information sharing. Often times, this happens organically when you’re in line for coffee, or on a shuttle en route to your next film. You never know whom you’re going to meet, or the potential collaboration that could come from that interaction.

Moreover, a lesser-known side of the festival is the panel discussions. These are a wealth of information and knowledge sharing among a variety of industry professionals and leaders. For example, this year Sundance is hosting a panel discussion titled, “The Power of Story: Weight and Measured” featuring allies and our next door neighbors StoryCorp, the BRITDOC Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, to name a few. Panels such as these are an opportunity to learn from peers in the field and get inspired by respected experts like the President of the Ford Foundation.

 3.     Both #1 and #2 aren’t exclusive to Utah in January

Now that we’re in the digital era, it’s easier for filmmakers to share their films with broader audiences and in more spaces than ever before. You and your organization don’t necessarily need to be at Sundance, and I would encourage you to look at film festivals in your own backyard. In addition, WITNESS peer organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have traveling film festivals in cities across the world. When there’s a curated space with similar content, it’s an opportunity to meet like-minded folks who share similar values and goals for their work.

Lisa Robinson is the External Relations Coordinator at WITNESS. 

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