Exclusive: Sundance launches lab for climate change docs

The non-profit is teaming up with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on a pilot initiative that supports films and new media projects about climate change, conservation and the environment. (Pictured: Catching the Sun)
April 21, 2016

Climate change might be one of the world’s most pressing issues, but only a small number of documentaries submitted to the Sundance Institute’s various film labs are tackling the subject.

To stoke interest in the topic, the non-profit is teaming up with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on a pilot initiative for films and emerging media projects that focus on climate change, conservation and the environment, and inspire viewers to take action.

The joint initiative – which does not yet have a name – will identify and back the creation of four projects and then offer filmmakers a chance to attend a climate change lab at late artist Robert Rauschenberg’s estate in Captiva Island, Florida, next year.

Grantees will be selected from submissions to the Institute’s Documentary, Feature Film and New Frontier programs.

The first project supported through the program is Shalini Kantayya‘s Catching the Sun(pictured), which premieres on Earth Day tomorrow (April 22) on Netflix. The film tells the story of workers and entrepreneurs in the U.S. and China working in the field of clean energy.

tabitha jackson

Tabitha Jackson

Sundance and the Rauschenberg Foundation are backing the doc’s public education campaign, which seeks to galvanize local communities across the U.S. to advocate for energy efficiency.

“Robert Redford, founder of Sundance Institute, has long recognized climate change and the protection of our natural environment as one of the greatest existential challenges of our time,” Tabitha Jackson, director of the Documentary Film program, wrote in an email to realscreen.

“What we have noticed though, through the thousands of project applications and festival submissions that we receive, is that apart from a few notable exceptions, there are surprisingly few works on climate change, and even fewer that will be able to ‘cut through’ to audiences,” she continued.

The cross-disciplinary program includes grants for projects in all stages of development, production and post-production, meetings with experts, scientists and thought leaders in the field, as well as strategy sessions and workshops on social impact campaign design.

Additional support for other environmental initiatives is also coming from the Rockefeller Foundation, Kendeda Fund, Discovery Channel, Code Blue Foundation and Joy Family Foundation.

Jackson says that if enough filmmakers express interest, and the funding partners are on board to provide further support, the Sundance Institute would like to see the program continue into 2018 and beyond.

“The initiative is designed in part to help us better understand the range of challenges and opportunities facing visual storytellers drawn to environmental work at this critical time,” she said, adding she hopes the workshop will help Sundance “better understand from others the roadblocks that are preventing more good work in this area from being made.”

In addition to the lab program, the organization is also partnering with the private Atlanta-based foundation Kendeda Fund to provide grants and year-round creative support to films about the environment.

Past environmental documentaries supported by the Sundance Institute include An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove, GaslandChasing Ice and Racing Extinction.

Watch the trailer for Catching the Sun below:

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.