"I love my job!" Wendy Levy, Director of the MacArthur-funded Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, brings her enthusiasm to Sundance this week. (Photo courtesy Levy)

Wendy Levy on the Politics of Participation

Susan Gerhard January 12, 2009

We all know that the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday in Utah, has films. But for the industry population that attends Sundance annually, the action is off-screen—not only in the hallways where air kisses reign, but in the worldly, wonky panels where filmmakers earnestly share ideas and experiences, and generate enough memes to populate a metroplis. One of the most interesting discussions this year will be the one hosted Thursday, January 22, by Wendy Levy, Bay Area Video Coalition’s Director of Creative Programming. She’ll be introducing BAVC’s Producers Institute for New Media Technologies to a no-doubt awestruck audience at the New Frontier on Main. While "interactive" may be the buzzword behind an ambitious project like The Producers Institute—where directors experiment other communication platforms to give new kinds of depth, breadth and reach to their projects—it’s also the clear descriptor for the whirlwind force leading it. Levy, a veteran of many nonprofits (including Film Arts Foundation) and a filmmaker herself, is as engaged and interactive as they come. She seemed the perfect person to offer not only thoughts on the program she’s presenting at Sundance on PI and what’s being called the "New Documentary Movement" —but to also offer a short Sundance primer before this year’s festival.

SF360: How many years have you gone to Sundance?

Wendy Levy: I went to Sundance for the first time in 1997 when my short swim, swim… was programmed before Su Friedrich’s documentary Hide and Seek. It was like the high school prom I never went to. I took a break and have been going representing BAVC since 2006.

SF360: What’s your best piece of advice for filmmakers or film fans going for the first time?

Levy: Figure out your priorities, and stay open to the unexpected. Be very friendly on waiting lines—you never know who’s behind you.

SF360: What’s the primary thing you’re trying to get across for Bay Area Video Coalition while you’re there this year?

Levy: For the last couple of years, as part of my gig as Director of Creative Programming at BAVC, I’ve been running the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies—a MacArthur Foundation-funded new media incubator for documentary producers. What has emerged from that work is an extraordinary new level of expertise for BAVC in global public media circles, and for me personally, an unflagging commitment to connecting social justice documentary producers to emerging technologies and strategic, sustainable partnerships that enable participation in the work. I’m at Sundance to lead some conversations about what we’re calling the New Documentary Movement, and to raise awareness about the extraordinary opportunity at the Institute for filmmakers to deepen their capacity to reach new audiences.

SF360: Tell us about the participants in your discussion (Thurs/22, 2 p.m.),
The New Documentary Movement: Emerging Technologies and Participatory Culture.

Levy: We’ve got a great combination—two award-winning doc producers, Paco de Onis, whose film The Reckoning is premiering at the Festival, and Thomas Allen Harris, the producer of Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela and the soon-to-be-released Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photography and the Emergence of a People. Both of those guys were at the Institute last June developing remarkable interactive applications that will be part of their projects. In addition to Paco and Thomas, Joaquin Alvarado, the uber-visionary director of the Institute for Next Generation Internet (and BAVC Board member) will also join the conversation with Stephanie Sharis, Executive Vice-President of Snag Films. I had hoped that Sameer Padania from WITNESS was going to be able to join, but we’ll channel him and the incredible work they are doing back in Brooklyn that is impacting global communities. Both Paco and Thomas can speak in practical terms about the paradigm shift in documentary practice that the digital universe has required—and will introduce their new and transformative applications (Paco’s is called International Justice Central; Thomas’ is Digital Diaspora). Snag has started to walk the talk as an innovating online distribution platform that builds in ‘filmanthropy’ with social networking, curated participation, and a dynamic revenue model—it’s still in BETA so it will be exciting to see what the future holds for them. Joaquin has been a key figure (with Ken Ikeda, BAVC’s Executive Director) helping to architect a new high-speed public media internet over fiber called National Public Lightpath that is very close to becoming a reality. He’s going to let everyone in to what it all means for content producers and the social change movements they are looking to impact.

SF360: What are some of the tools you feel are most interesting at this particular juncture?

Levy: I’m into maps these days—at the Institute, we’ve been working with Google and this extraordinary group of developers at Pentura in Canada on really robust social justice map applications—the power of geo-locating stories, and maps that capture realtime texts, twitters, video, and other digital communications about human rights abuses, or environmental crimes, or riots in Oakland — it’s very powerful stuff. I’m also into games-for-change—the idea is (and I credit my friend professor Peggy Weil for saying this before I did), ‘If you want to change the world, you have to play with it first.’ Games like Dying in Darfur, Iced, Virtual Guantanamo (Second Life), Free Rice, World Without Oil (Alternate Reality)—these games and platforms make urgent social issues relevant and engaging for people and enable participation, collaboration, and problem solving. They need to get visually more sophisticated, but are very effective nonetheless. For me, curated mobile storytelling and interactive television are the new frontiers.

SF360: When did the Producers Institute start and what was its spark?

Levy: The Producers Institute started two years ago with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The idea developed over time as part of the strategic visioning we do as a staff at BAVC constantly—it’s really an innovation economy over there. Our mission is about providing access to technology to underserved communities—which is a broad and constantly shifting mandate. It’s not about renting offline edit suites anymore. The notion of access has changed, audiences have changed, modes of production and distribution—we must stay relevant to the field by providing access to new ideas, and innovating technologies that are truly transformative in the hands of storytellers making media that matters.

SF360: Where can we learn more about the projects highlighted in New Frontier?

Levy: See project descriptions with video at http://www.bavc.org.

SF360: BAVC is itself at the frontier of filmmaking culture in the Bay Area. What’s your biggest challenge at the moment as an organization?

Levy: BAVC offers a diverse, integrated, relevant set of programs—and we’ve been serving a broad community of producers, public broadcasters, youth, institutions, organizations, technologists, students, teachers, etc., for over 30 years—we are in an incredibly creative space right now, aware of the limitations of a troubled global economy, but still able to be visionary as an organization. Since I travel a lot speaking at conferences and festivals, I think branding is a challenge for us. Lots of folks all over the world know about BAVC, but our name does not reflect what we do. We’re not just Bay Area, not just Video, never really been a Coalition. We need to figure it out.

SF360: But back to Sundance: What (else) are you most excited to see and do while you’re there?

Levy: This year, I plan to do some serious documentary watching. Four in a row is nothing for me. I’m excited to have some meetings set up with some great people—really looking forward to getting with the folks from from BritDoc Foundation. My disease is that I actually still get excited over a good panel discussion, so I tend to hang at the Filmmaker Lodge. Also Youth Speaks is at the Music Cafe, and I’m excited to check out Lynette Wallworth’s piece Evolution of Fearlessness at New Frontier on Main.

SF360: And, finally, why do you love what you’re doing?

Levy: It is such an exciting time to be working on innovation in public media…I get to connect incredible storytellers with new tools for real participation, to craft opportunities and partnerships that truly engage communities in social change. Transformative media, human rights, cool geeky tech stuff, very smart people—BAVC is an amazing sandbox to be playing in right now—I’m very lucky.