A decade of the DFP

Ahead of tonight's International Documentary Association Awards, at which the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund (DFP) will receive the Pioneer Award, its director Cara Mertes (pictured) tells realscreen about the program's first decade.
December 7, 2012

As 2012 draws to a close, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund’s (DFP) 10th anniversary celebrations are winding down, but not before one last recognition. Ahead of the International Documentary Association Awards tonight, where the DFP will receive the Pioneer Award, director Cara Mertes (pictured) tells realscreen about the growth the program has had in its 10 years of existence.

Cara Mertes, director of the Documentary Film Program (DFP), has been with the Sundance Institute initiative since 2006, and in her time there, has focused on expanding its partnerships.

“When I came there was a small lab program and a limited fund, and I set about increasing and stabilizing the fund, which we’ve done; expanding the lab program, including workshops and flash labs; and extended granting and creative support,” she tells realscreen.

“[We've] also developed a third area that I call international creative partnerships, and they’re really about increasing resources for documentary filmmakers around the world.”

Those partnerships include the Skoll Foundation on Stories of Change, which brings social entrepreneurs and storytellers together at the Sundance Film Festival and the Skoll World Forum; the Channel 4/Britdoc Foundation partnership, which created the Good Pitch in North America, where NGOs, philanthropic, corporate and individual investors are brought together to support films; the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture to support Arab documentaries; and CNEX, a Beijing-based not-for-profit, to run labs and design funding protocols.

“We’re looking at not only helping individual filmmakers, we’re also looking at institutional support as well –through mentoring, designing labs and fund protocols, taking what we learned about supporting independent documentary with the fund and bringing that to colleagues in other places,” she says.

In addition to the partnerships, the DFP has supported films and filmmakers from around the world, through the Sundance Documentary Funds, which grant between US$1 million and $2 million per year in development, production and post-production categories; creative documentary labs; Sundance Creative Producers Summit, and more.

Mertes oversees a staff of nine, with two senior consultants, along with an “army of pre-screeners” who help go through some 2,000 proposals a year.

Some of those films the staff and support have selected includes Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, Mahmoud al Massad’s Recycle, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts and U.S. films The Island President, directed by Jon Shenk, and Detropia from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, along with Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country and The Oath.

In the year ahead, Mertes says the team is drawing up plans for an Impact Lab she’s hoping to launch in 2014, which would be tailored towards creating strategies for impact around existing film projects.

“We hope to make that one of our core annual labs so that our filmmakers can cycle through not only the Documentary and Edit Story Lab, but the Story Composers Lab and the Producers Lab and all of those tracks we have at the Film Festival twice a year, and also be able to be invited to the Impact lLb.”

They hope to partner with an organization for that lab, and she says they also want to launch a fund that will support a wider spectrum of docs, recognizing those that might be more experimental in form or that break new ground in creative use of the genre.  Mertes says they hope to launch that as part of the DFP’s specialty funds.

For filmmakers looking to submit a proposal, Mertes’s advice is to let the film speak for itself. Even more importantly, she urges beginner filmmakers to apply.

“There’s a mythology that we only work with very experienced filmmakers. That’s not true at all. In fact, just like the festival, the Fund and the Discovery program are very intent on helping new artists come into the landscape,” she says.


  • The International Documentary Awards take place tonight (December 7).
About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.