The program presents filmmakers ages 18 to 24 with the tools they need to grow in the beginning of their careers. This year, more than 300 applicants in the U.S. and worldwide submitted short films fitting the "What's Next" theme of the program. The films were judged on their technical and artistic merits by a team of Sundance alumni and industry professionals people who have survived the struggles of breaking into the business, including producers Jason Berman ("The Birth of a Nation") and Effie Brown ("Dear White People").
The experts then mentor the fellows throughout the festival one of the perks the young filmmakers enjoy. Fellows also participate in all the benefits included in the Ignite ticket package, as well as exclusive panel discussions with filmmakers and industry members. The rest of the year, they attend workshops hosted by the Sundance Institute, create content for different institute projects and meet monthly with their mentors for continued professional support.
One of the fellows this year, 23-year-old New York University grad Tyler Rabinowitz, used the "What's Next" opportunity to submit a politically charged music video he directed with musician Amy Leon. The 7-minute project, "Burning in Birmingham," evokes the 1963 Birmingham church bombing to address race relations in present day and fittingly takes place in what remains of a burned-down church in a New York neighborhood. While the discovery of the setting laid the groundwork for bringing Leon's vision to life, the real challenge for Rabinowitz came when trying to convey her message about race and violence as a white man.
"It's a responsibility to be accountable as a white person to be aware of what privilege is," he said. "You can be an ally and an accomplice when you take your craft and try to elevate and bring to life the stories that aren't your own, but the ones we need to talk about."
As a freelance filmmaker, Rabinowitz already has a large body of work, but his acceptance into the fellowship program was a welcome surprise.
"It's a wonderful validation and celebration of the kind of work that inspires us and what we hope to be doing and what we feel can be done with film," he said.
On the other hand, Emiliana Amirata, a 20-year-old from Venezuela, never knew she'd pursue a film career. Her first film and Ignite entry, "La Casa Quebrada" (The Broken Home), tackles body image issues and their connection to mother-daughter relationships in Venezuelan culture. Amirata says the dialogue in the short film is inspired by phrases she's witnessed and experienced in her life.
"Down there [in Venezuela] we have a very intense culture of body image and how a woman is supposed to look and how a woman is supposed to please men," she said. "There isn't a feminist movement."
When she moved to Southern California to pursue a film degree at Chapman University, Amirata was shocked to witness a culture completely different from her own, and it inspired her to portray those personal experiences in a short film project assigned to her sophomore year.
"The film was inspired by words and phrases and little moments that I lived at home that I thought were normal. Once I put them on a screen and on a script, I realized it was a completely twisted sense of reality," she said.
For Amirata, the opportunity posed by the Ignite fellowship enables her to discover how independent films can be used as a tool to inspire and affect change, something she hasn't found among the box-office toppers available back home.
"I've always craved this kind of content I'll be able to learn, grow, realize and pinpoint in certain films what I want to do," she said.
Rabinowitz and Amirata plan to use film as a platform for activism, to bring awareness to issues that are important to them and, as Rabinowitz says, "put the camera where it needs to be so we can have the conversations that we need to have."
Lavitt says once the year ends, the Sundance Institute will continue to support the fellows.
"There's that saying, 'These are tomorrow's filmmakers.' They're really today's filmmakers," she said.