Sundance Preview: Directors Reflect On Their Feature Documentaries
Pedro Kos
Lucy Walker, Pedro Kos, Parker Hill discuss project backstories, challenges, festival’s significance

Bring Your Own Brigade, Rebel Hearts and Cusp are among the select field of documentaries set for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.

The filmmakers behind them run the gamut in terms of their Sundance chops. Lucy Walker is a Sundance fixture with Bring Your Own Brigade her latest in a series of notable documentaries to grace the festival over the years.

Pedro Kos has had films at Sundance that he’s edited, one he co-directed and now gets his solo directing turn into the mix with Rebel Hearts.

And Parker Hill makes her Sundance directorial debut with Cusp, which she and Isabel Bethencourt teamed to direct.

SHOOT connected with Walker, Kos and Hill to gain insights into their latest films, the backstories and challenges of each, and reflections on the meaning of gaining inclusion into the Sundance ranks.

Lucy Walker
Walker has had assorted films--both feature documentaries and shorts--make their initial mark at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. Two of those films, Waste Land and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, went on to earn Oscar nominations, respectively, for Best Documentary Feature in 2011 and Best Short Subject Documentary in 2012. 

Waste Land had first won the Sundance Audience Award in the World Cinema-Documentary competition while The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom took the festival’s non-fiction Short Film Jury Prize. Among Walker’s other Sundance films were Devil’s Playground which went on to receive three Emmy nominations (Best Documentary, Best Director, Best Editing) and an Independent Spirit Award nod for Best Documentary, the acclaimed short The Lion’s Mouth Opens which centered on a courageous young woman at risk of Huntington’s Disease, and The Crash Reel, about snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s battle with a traumatic brain injury. The latter garnered Walker a DGA Award nomination in 2014 for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary.

Now Walker’s Sundance odyssey continues with Bring Your Own Brigade which will be showcased in the fest’s Premieres category. The character-driven verite feature takes us on a journey embedded with firefighters and residents on a mission to understand the causes of historically large wildfires and how to survive them.

Walker gravitated to the story naturally, having moved from London to California where one record wildfire after another ravaged multiple communities. These included the Camp Fire in 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The Camp Fire struck Northern California’s Butte County, including the town of Paradise which was devastated. Concurrently the Woolsey Fire roared through Malibu in Southern California, leaving behind unimaginable loss.

Walker wondered if things had to be this way and sought to get to the bottom of what was happening. While not yet at liberty to discuss in detail what she discovered with the debut of her film pending, Walker shared that the experience was an eye-opener, yielding insights and answers that were often quite different from what she had expected going into the project. “Navigating through these different communities, beliefs, getting out of your own bubble,” observed Walker, makes for a valuable learning experience. 

The good news, she continued, is that there are steps that can be taken to meaningfully address the situation--but questions remain as to exactly why those steps haven’t yet fully been taken. Thankfully, affirmed Walker, the problem is “a lot more fixable than it seems.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by Bring Your Own Brigade entailed not only filming in dramatic disaster zones fraught with physical danger but also emotionally following firefighters who put their lives on the line and residents who have lost their homes and/or loved ones. Chronicling and relating to what firefighters and residents were going through was at times overwhelming. “What firefighters are asked to do in these fires is literally hellish,” said Walker. “A burning hell is a literal definition of what firefighters are working in and what residents are facing. Ours is a very sympathetic look at the residents and firefighters while trying to capture the real story of what’s going on.”

Walker’s acumen at capturing all sorts of stories and having them connect with viewers is itself well documented, in part by her longstanding prolific, ongoing run at Sundance which numbers thus far 10 films and counting. Walker said she’s honored to have Bring Your Own Brigade included in the festival’s Premieres lineup of stellar films. There’s also the gratification of meeting the historically high bar set by Premieres which is billed as a showcase of some of the most highly anticipated fiction and nonfiction films of the coming year. The Premieres section at Sundance has in the past given high-profile debut exposure to documentaries like The Dissident, On the Record and Miss Americana, and narrative titles such as Kajillionaire, Promising Young Woman, The Report, Late Night, The Big Sick and Call Me By Your Name. Promising Young Woman and The Dissident are now among the contending films firmly in this season’s Oscar conversation. 

Walker’s short-form exploits extend beyond master works like the aforementioned The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom and The Lion’s Mouth Opens. She also remains active in commercials and branded content via the Merman studio. She has to her credit for example a lauded film for the Always feminine hygiene brand in which girls talk about and start to realize how they are stereotypically limited in emojis depicting them as compared to their male counterparts. 

Walker observed that her work in the ad arena informs her documentary filmmaking and vice versa. “I’m always looking for the best stories, building my skills, wanting to learn from different stories. You develop a craft and sense of which stories will connect with audiences. Brands have helped me in that regard. I’ve done some fantastic projects with brands, telling stories. I love films of different lengths. I pride myself on finding the right length for different stories. You learn something different along the way. I love sharpening my nose for stories and the craft of telling them. I don’t want to repeat myself. I always like a new challenge.”

Pedro Kos
Merman also figures in the work of director Kos, representing him in the branded arena while also serving as a production company on the feature Rebel Hearts which was one of 10 films selected for this year’s Sundance U.S. Documentary Competition. Kira Carstensen, global managing partner of Merman, is one of three prime producers on Rebel Hearts, the other two being Shawnee Isaac-Smith and Judy Korin. Rebel Hearts centers on a group of pioneering nuns who bravely stand up to the Catholic Church patriarchy, fighting for their livelihoods, convictions and equality against an all-powerful Cardinal. From marching in Selma in 1965 to the Women’s March in 2018, these women had a hand in reshaping our society for the better with their bold acts of defiance. 

Kos, who first made a major career splash as an editor (including winning a primetime Emmy for The Square, shared with two other cutters), is no stranger to Sundance. In 2017, the feature documentary Bending the Arc--which he and Kief Davidson directed--premiered at Sundance in the Premieres section. Earlier Kos had edited work that also made the Sundance cut, including Walker’s The Crash Reel. (Walker and Kos additionally teamed on the writing of The Crash Reel.) Still, Rebel Hearts--the second feature documentary directed by Kos--breaks new ground for him at Sundance as the first feature doc. he’s helmed solo. 

He credits Carstensen, a friend and colleague, with affording him the opportunity. The genesis of the project came actually some 20 years ago when Isaac-Smith connected with several former Immaculate Heart Sisters and was moved by their story. 

She conducted interviews with these nuns and began to build a treasure trove of material, including archival photos, correspondence, artwork, newspaper and media coverage, Carstensen and Isaac-Smith later connected and bonded on a mutual charity/community service endeavor. Then in 2014 upon learning of Isaac-Smith’s work on the nuns’ story, Carstensen was immediately drawn in. A year later, recalled Kos, Carstensen came to him. 

“Kira has an incredible sense of story,” related Kos. “She knew me well and thought of me. At the time I had been working as an editor and had some success with some documentaries I had cut. I had been looking to transition into directing.”

When Isaac-Smith and Carstensen shared the material that had been compiled over the years, Kos said, “It was love at first sight. This one was like an arrow right through my heart. The Heart Sisters got involved in the civil rights movement, the farm workers’ movement, the anti-war movement.” Kos described the nuns as “a community of women who empowered each other, stood up to an oppressive structure. Growing up as a gay man in Catholic Brazil, I empathized a lot with them, their interpretation of the faith.”

Yet while considerable archival and interview resources had been gathered, Kos had to cover a story that spans five decades, a great deal of it taking place in the 1960s. “They haven’t invented a time machine yet so there were parts of the story we had to figure out how to best bring to life,” related Kos. “My goal and dream as a director is to make a story feel completely immersive. I want to take you on a roller coaster ride, an emotional journey with incredible characters. One of the challenges was how can we bring the story to life in a unique cinematic way that is going to transport people into and capture the emotional resonance of what’s happening.

“This biggest challenge,” he continued, “turned out in a way to be our greatest opportunity.” The pivotal discovery, said Kos, was Icelandic animator Una Lorenzen who brought a unifying cohesive element that helps tie the story together. 

Ambitious and inspired animation and motion graphics informed by “the heart of the story” helped realize the immersive feel that Kos wanted. These and other elements meshed to do justice to the Heart Sisters’ saga which Kos described as “a joyous rebellion,” sparking “an awakening that reverberated and changed the world.”

To have that story recognized by Sundance is particularly satisfying for Kos. “I almost fainted when I got the call from Sundance,” related Kos. “It was a burst of emotion. Shawnee, Kira, myself and Judy have put so much into this, especially Shawnee going back 20 years. The Sundance selection was the best thing that happened to me in 2020, a trying year for everyone. We want audiences to connect with this story, that it will serve as a ray or beam of hope for us and others.”

Parker Hill
Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, whose friendship dates back to their time together studying film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, were on the last day of a photo road trip that took them from Montana to Texas, They set out on the sojourn  to capture the American teenage summer, hitting burger joints, state parks and other hangouts. Their last night of the photojournalism odyssey had them 90 minutes outside Austin at a gas station filling up their final tank before heading home. A truck pulled up blasting music and slammed to a halt. Girls hopped out of the cab. 

“We found ourselves in the midst of a boundless adolescent summer night,” recalled Hill. “The girls were a blast to be around. We got to talking, they invited us to a friend’s house. They were going on an adventure, planning to jump in the river in the middle of the night.”

Hill and Bethencourt stayed in touch with the girls on Instagram, eventually asking them if they’d be amenable to being part of a documentary short. That short evolved into Cusp, a feature documentary chronicling a formative year of teenage life for three friends in a Texas town. Autumn, Brittney and Aaloni allowed directors Hill and Bethencourt to observe intimate moments within their social circles, homes and overall lives. The film’s verite approach creates a sensitive, multifaceted portrait of adolescent girlhood along with the time and place in which these girls experience it. At the same time, their stories shed light on what varied other teenage girls might be going through, including the dark corners of growing up.

Cusp is now on the verge of its world premiere at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary Competition. It marks Bethencourt’s directorial debut and the first feature documentary helmed by Hill who earlier directed some short films. Noting that Bethencourt’s background is in cinematography for documentaries while hers is more in directing, Hill recalled suggesting to her compatriot, “You could co-direct if I could co-shoot it.” Hill continued, “Isabel is a great collaborator,” which is something she knew long before Cusp. “We’re good at having a small footprint, working with real people.” Back in 2019, for example, Hill directed an ESPN commercial promoting the SEC Network (college sports), which Bethencourt lensed. “It was real people in real places. We have such a good workflow and shorthand,” noted Hill who directs spots and branded content through production house Tomorrow, formed in 2019 by executive producer Chris Zander and director Andrew Wonder. Among Hill’s recent ad credits are a pair of Ford commercials she teamed on with Wonder to direct.

In addition to directing and shooting Cusp, Hill and Bethencourt served as producers of the film. Hill additionally edited while crediting supervising editor Fiona Otway with making an integral contribution. Otway, an accomplished editor known for her work in documentaries (Hell and Back Again, Iraq in Fragments), was brought onto Cusp after it was selected for the Sundance fest. Hill observed that Otway provided a much needed objective perspective. “Isabel and I were attached to the girls in the film,” explained Hill. “It was nice to have an outside voice (Otway) come in and help shape the story, to clarify things. As first-time feature directors, we want to say so much about the world, about the girls. She (Otway) reined us in a little bit and gave a focus on what we could say in an hour and a half, which is not a lot of real estate considering how much we shot.”

Having her feature directing debut selected for Sundance means a great deal to Hill. “Sundance has been my dream festival forever,” she said. “My uncle lives in Park City. Since my first year in film school, I’ve gone to the festival and seen opening night films for years, including the premiere of Whiplash, one of my favorite movies. I’ve been waiting for this moment as long as I’ve wanted to make movies. It’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster, though. You dream of standing on stage, addressing an audience. It is a bummer that the (Cusp) premiere won’t be in a room with others, to be able to hear someone laugh. The film has a lot of darkness and a lot of humor. I hope it connects with people. Hopefully it will go beyond this festival, play at other festivals.”

Yet there may be a silver lining to the Sundance fest being largely virtual with perhaps more people being able to gain access to content. The festival will take place digitally via a feature-rich, Sundance-built online platform and with select limited in-person audiences on satellite screens across the country (public health permitting). Planned Los Angeles-area drive-in screenings, though, have been canceled due to surging COVID-19 infection rates in Southern California.

As for what’s next for Hill, she hopes that Cusp puts her on the cusp of directing a narrative feature. The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 28-February 3.


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