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“Surreal.” That’s how Baltimore-based film director Ramona S. Diaz described the feeling she had when she answered the phone call in November from the Sundance Film Festival letting her know that her documentary And So It Begins had been selected to premiere at this year’s Festival. 

An estimated 50,000-100,000 people are attending the high-profile festival which began on January 18 and continues through the 28th in Park City, Utah. For film fans who can’t make the trip but still want to take part in the cinematic buzz, the Festival has retained the online component launched during the pandemic. Through January 28, select films, including And So It Begins and several others helmed by local filmmakers, are available on-demand online. 

Sundance, which sets the trends for the independent film industry, received a record almost 17,500 submissions this year that ultimately yielded 82 feature-length and 53 short films, both scripted and documentary, for its program.

Diaz’s film’s acceptance puts her in an exclusive club of the less than 2% who made the cut. What makes this feat even more extraordinary is that this is Diaz’s fourth film documenting Filipino history and culture to screen at Sundance. But getting that call with the acceptance news “never gets old,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s always a surprise, like, ‘Oh, you’re calling me?’”

A still from And So It Begins by Ramona S. Diaz an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Cine Diaz.
A still from And So It Begins by Ramona S. Diaz an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Cine Diaz.
It’s our job as artists to keep on pushing the envelope in terms of how to view the world... That's what we're here for. And that's why new voices are always important.
Ramona S. Diaz

Diaz began working on And So It Begins (for which local nonprofit Docs in Progress in Silver Springs served as the fiscal sponsor) in 2021, as she followed the lead-up to the 2022 elections in the Philippines.

The film chronicles the people-led movement in the country to restore and defend democracy and its intrepid female presidential candidate Leni Robredo, who was contending against the frontrunner Bongbong Marcos, son of former president/dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and no-holds-barred social media attacks. Though taking place halfway around the world, these dynamicsand the high stakes for the health of democracysound eerily familiar as we enter our own rollercoaster of an election year.

While Diaz notes thatIt’s not my intention to just look for stories about women,” profiles of strong women are a throughline of her Sundance oeuvre. And So It Begins, which she also wrote and produced, is a companion piece to the 2020 Festival premiering A Thousand Cuts that tracked the courageous battles for a free press in the Philippines of Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa and her colleagues. Imelda (2004) explored the life and work of Imelda Marcos (the mother of Bongbong and wife of Ferdinand), and Motherland (2017) portrayed the patients and staff of a busy Manila maternity ward. 

A condition of having a film accepted at Sundance is the filmmaker attending the Festival, an experience Diaz calls “exciting and then overwhelming.” Screening at Sundance is a celebratory moment for sure, she says. Also, however, “It makes you feel very vulnerable. You feel exposed,” she admits, even for a several-time veteran like herself. “That’s your baby up there [on screen]. Will people like your baby, basically? And that’s the whole other level of Sundance because of having so many eyes on it at the festival.”

Although And So It Begins has already secured domestic public television broadcast, the director is still looking at other avenues for distribution, such as streaming platforms and international sales, and awaiting the critical and industry reception. “It’s just the beginning,” says Diaz of the premiere. ”You’re always hopeful about where it will go from there.”

Last year’s Sundance marked a low point for the independent documentary film industry. Despite a strong crop of well-reviewed features, very few were acquired and picked up for distribution at the Festival, engendering a lot of soul-searching and teeth-gnashing about the end of the “golden age of documentary.” Diaz is a bit more sanguine about the shake-out. “The documentary world has always had inflection points, right?” she said. “I think it will reinvent itself.” 

In fact, she finds a few reasons to be optimistic about the future of the industry. She’s confident that independent creators will continue to create, despite the often punishing market conditions, “Films will get made somehow, because there will always be those storytellers that, no matter what, will get them made.” Plus, there’s an appetite for fresh viewpoints and content. “All those celebrity and sports and true crime docs, I love them and watch them,” she said. “But at a certain point the audience will start looking for more variation on the menu.” 

Furthermore, “It’s our job as artists to keep on pushing the envelope in terms of how to view the world,” she argues, and to push audiences by showing “them stuff that they don’t even know they want. That’s what we’re here for. And that’s why new voices are always important.”

Still of Daughters by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae, an official selection of the US Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival
Still of Daughters by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae
Still of Daughters by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae
Still of Daughters by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae

Among those new voices are two other films premiering at Sundance helmed by emerging local talents. Daughters, which follows four young girls prepare for a special Daddy-Daughter Dance with their incarcerated fathers as part of a unique fatherhood program in a Washington, DC, jail, made the ultra-exclusive list of only ten feature films in the US Documentary Competition. As of today, it has earned not only the Festival Favorite Award but the Audience Award for US Documentary as well.

First-time feature co-directors Natalie Rae and Angela Patton (the Richmond-based activist who also leads the nonprofit program that is at the center of the film) took eight years to complete the project. Audiences are going to connect with” this frank and touching portrait of Black girls growing up and into their own power against the backdrop of complex family dynamics and our country’s system of mass incarceration, Sundance’s Director of Programming Kim Yutani was quoted in Vulture as saying—and she added that viewers should come prepared to cry, “Yeah, it’s a three-hanky.”


Film still: Jordan Rayanna Wells and Alexis Cofield in Grace, directed by Natalie Jasmine Harris. Photo by Tehillah De Castro
Jordan Rayanna Wells, C.L. Simpson, and Mikayla La Shae Bartholomew appear in Grace by Natalie Jasmine Harris. Photo by Tehillah De Castro
Alexis Cofield appears in Grace by Natalie Jasmine Harris. Photo by Tehillah De Castro

Director/screenwriter/producer and Silver Springs native Natalie Jasmine Harris is screening the scripted short Grace in “Short Film Program 5.” This 13-minute period piece with a queer lens follows Grace as she prepares for her baptism in the rural 1950s South while wrestling at the same time with her budding romantic feelings towards her best friend, Louise. Harris’s previous short, her 2020 NYU undergraduate thesis film Pure, about a young Black girl navigating both the cotillion ball tradition and a crush on a fellow debutante, is currently streaming on Max.

There’s perpetual chatter about whether Sundance, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, continues to play as much of a visibility and agenda-setting function as it has in the past for both emerging filmmakers who are making their inaugural appearance at the Festival, as are Harris and the Patton-Rae team, and returnees like Diaz. In Diaz’s opinion, through the industry’s ups and downs, the Festival remains a cultural touchstone. The event’s “record of choosing films that will roll out and be part of the conversation” has been proven over and over, she said. “What they have chosen to program then becomes part of the zeitgeist.” 

Diaz claims not to know the formula to her success at Sundance over the past 20 years, aside from continuing to pursue her craft. “It’s not like there’s a special equation: you do this, this, plus this = Sundance,” she said. “I just make the films and hopefully Sundance gets to see it and likes it.” Now that Sundance has seen And So It Begins and liked it, Diaz’s film is heading from Park City out into the world.

A peripatetic existence is the norm for Diaz (“been everywhere and been part of everything,” she jokes) to realize her film projects. But she holds on to Baltimore as a home base. Having originally settled in the city in 2003, she credits the place with making an essential contribution to her creative process and the return trips to Sundance. 

“I like going home to Baltimore when I have to think and really be quiet. I live in a great neighborhood [Mount Washington] where I can do that. I can go for long walks and just figure out the work.”

And So It Begins, Daughters, and Grace are available on-demand online through January 28 as part of the Sundance Film Festival; $25 single film; $25 online Shorts Film Pass; $350 for 10 tickets for screenings. 

You can view the full Sundance program and how to purchase tickets here.


Images Courtesy of Sundance Institute

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