How Sundance Programmer Shari Frilot Keeps the Film Festival Diverse

Photo by Araya Diaz/ Getty
As chief curator of the New Frontier program at Sundance, Frilot, a Harvard graduate, has created an experience where film, art, and multimedia technology coincide.

For independent storytellers of color, what’s the key to gaining a debut slot at the Sundance Film Festival? Getting on the radar of senior film programmer Shari Frilot is a solid place to start. She’s an integral part of the team that selects projects shown at Sundance, and she’s a dedicated proponent of diversity at the fest. “I worked to reclassify the word diversity,” Frilot tells ESSENCE.

Also the chief curator of the New Frontier program at Sundance, Frilot, a Harvard graduate, has created an experience where film, art, and multimedia technology coincide to hatch new ways to tell stories. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the program.

Over espresso on a chilly Saturday morning at Cafecito Organico in Silver Lake, California, Frilot is eager to share details on her favorite selections from this year’s presentation. But not until she’s whipped out a Google Cardboard, her hand-held, portable virtual-reality system (about $20), and shown this interviewer Chris Milk’s project “Evolution of Verse,” a photo-realistic CGI-rendered 3-D VR film that she has on her phone. I pop in my earbuds, place the cardboard box with focal length lenses over my eyes, and I’m transported. I’m now standing in the middle of a lake surrounded by mountains. It’s a bit jarring, but still appealing. “Make sure you look out for the train,” she says. “What?!” Then I hear it and see that it’s coming straight at me…

Frilot’s career in cinema began in the 1990s with her indie films like the documentary Black Nations/Queer Nations? She’s acted as director of the MIX festival in New York, co-founded MIX Brazil and MIX Mexico, and was the co-director of programming for Outfest before aligning with Sundance.

ESSENCE spoke to Frilot about her background, curating New Frontier, and keeping Sundance varied.

What was the initial idea for New Frontier?
The initial idea with New Frontier is very rooted in a personal place for me. My father is Creole and my mother is Puerto Rican and I grew up in Denver in the ‘70s, ‘80s. There weren’t a lot of Creoles or Puerto Ricans. So in my peer group I was always classified as a string of ‘nots’ – you’re not this and you’re not that. I could never figure out who I actually was. Then I learned about quantum physics and realized that the very basic elements that make up our material world and the air that we breath consists of photons that if you want to measure the photons it has two qualities; a particle quality and a wave quality, but the more that you know about the wave the less you know about the particle and vice versa. There is no way that you can know both. At the same time it is wholly a wave and wholly a particle. So it contradicts common sense, but that is the basic fact of our physical world and I really related to that. I feel wholly Puerto Rican and I feel wholly Creole. I feel like a Black girl and the basic law of physics was telling me that that’s ok to feel. So in the practice of art and expression I continue with this idea. If you put different worlds together that used to be boxed away and put them under one roof something larger than the sum of its parts is going to come out of it. So that’s the approach for New Frontier.

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What were those first years of New Frontier like?
At the time it was like absolute terror because at Sundance the audience is really demanding. They expect for their minds to be blown, but they also expect to have access to the work. This is something that I was going to bring in. Virtual Reality (VR) wasn’t really pretty looking. You had to get into these goggles and it was really cumbersome and heavy and only one person at a time could see it. We were going into it knowing that not a lot of people were going to see it, so that was a little terrifying. But once you got into those goggles your mind just got blown. New Frontier is not only about bringing the future is now stuff, but things that will provoke storyteller’s imaginations.

Will there be a VR specific category at Sundance moving forward?
This year is the first year there is. I don’t know where it’s going to go. But the fact that in the past I had to scramble to get 11 projects and this year I selected 30 out of 200 submissions.

Do you feel especially proud, as Black women, to have an impact at Sundance?
I feel really proud of finding a way to live out my potential that never left anything behind. I would have never come to this place had I not been a Black girl. What I’m really proud of is fully embracing different parts of my identity as assets to life. But there is nothing more powerful than an outsider’s perspective because only an outsider can see everything. As a Black person I’ve often been denied the inside seat. What I’m proud of is finding the value of that position. It’s universal. I’ve tapped into something that everybody can. It’s so valuable.

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What is your fight like when trying to ensure a diverse selection of films at Sundance each year?
I really believe in film as one of the most powerful mediums of expression. It affects how we relate to each other. The images have to be diverse. They have to reflect our experiences. You have to find ways to build language to value Black films there. I come up with new tricks every year.

How do you get them to listen?
Sometimes your race will predetermine how people will hear what you say, so in those early days it was really hard to get people to hear me say something that was not reflecting of myself, like the autobiographical voice. There had been times where I spoke up on a film that was not Black at all and I knew that film was going to perform and we didn’t take it and it performed like gangbusters and I’d say ‘I told you about this.’ They only heard me talk about the Black film. That shifted. I worked to reclassify the word diversity in our discussions. I was used to connote people of color. That was a very limiting way through which to consider films by people of color, so I started to use that term diversity to talk about formal diversity. I would talk about an experimental film by a White man and talk about how this would diversify the lineup. Then there was like a ‘yeah.’ Then we started to let go of talking about Black films in this way. That allowed us to start talking about films of Black people and their different approach. Not the people in it, but how they are telling the story. And just being able to point out a film like American Promise. It’s never been done before. Parents looking at their children grow up over 13 years, their Black boys, in a public school system and private school system. In the age of Trayvon [Martin], you just start to speak these films’ quality and people start to see.

What are some of your favorite projects this year?
Kahlil Joseph created a double channel projection (titled "Double Conscience"). It’s essentially like a slice of life. It’s actually a portrait. A very evolved notion of portraiture of life in Compton. It’s a community portrait in the way that the screens come together. He uses a lot of portrait framing from polaroid to clipped edges to full screen and it features Kendrick Lamar’s music. There’s so many. The larger picture that the overall show’s telling us is that media has become like air. And I’m looking at some of the repetition of subject matter, like whales. There are these whales in the show. Anytime that happens I pay attention to it. Some of the artists are looking at the natural world. They are using technology to enter into the environment of these whales in ways that question what is the difference between our environment and there’s. My instinct is this is very significant and important thing that’s happening.

*New Frontier will expand to the MoMA in New York in April to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program with an exhibition title “Slithering Screens.”

This interview had been edited and condensed.  

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