The next conversation in our ongoing Frame By Frame series is with Shari Frilot, senior film programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and chief curator of the Sundance New Frontier program, which converges film with fine art and new technology to discover new, immersive ways of storytelling.
After beginning her career as a filmmaker in the 1990s with experimental short "A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality" and working on a series of other film and video works, Frilot went on to co-found and curate programs at queer film festivals including MIX and Outfest before joining Sundance in 1998.
We spoke at length about her career beginnings, her work with Sundance, her perspective as a queer artist of color, and bringing a spirit of diversity and inclusiveness to one of the world's most prestigious film festivals.
JAI TIGGETT: You began as a filmmaker. Tell me about how you got started in storytelling and how you moved on to curation.
SHARI FRILOT: I started in art practice when I was in college on an Engineering scholarship. I started working with collage and became interested in integrating moving images within the collage, and that's kind of how I started making films. One of the first ones that I was able to successfully complete was called "A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality," which was essentially about women and basic aspects of their sexuality told in conjunction with the macro and microscopic structures of the universe. It was kind of lighthearted, a little bit of comedy. And it showed at a lot of film festivals.
I was really excited about this movie showing every place, but it was being programmed in the same exact way every time it went to a film festival. It was always in the black gay section, which I actually don't have a problem with, but we were always having the same discussion. I wanted my film to be in a platform that opened up discussions around structures of the universe and sexuality, as opposed to it being about black women just because of who I am. It just wasn't an expansive showcase and a point of access to talking about the work.
So the movie was programmed at what was then the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. The organizers had been doing it for seven years and kind of wanted to move on, and they really liked my film said, "Do you want to take over the festival?" I had been banging my head up against this problem of exhibition so I said I'd do it. I took that on and created MIX with Karim Ainouz, who was a filmmaker as well. We also co-founded MIX Mexico and MIX Brazil. It was this concept of being frustrated with the conversation of sexuality in America, and how the Brazilians were thinking about it in a totally different way, that I found exciting.
JT: So it was really an outgrowth of your own frustrations as a filmmaker that led to these other projects.
SF: I wanted to build a festival that I would be excited as a filmmaker to screen with. Outfest was kind of the last straw for me. I was part of a group of black gay filmmakers and it was kind of like a Renaissance, a blossoming of community. And when I got to LA, Outfest was my LA premiere and they were picketing the festival.
This was before [John] Cooper [then-Outfest programmer] was there. They weren't experiencing a good time there and they felt like it was important to point out, you're raising all of this money in your grants on people of color, but we're not seeing any of the benefits. We're in the smallest theaters at the worst times, and we're at home stays when the money that you're raising is actually flying out these other filmmakers and putting them up at hotels. So there was obvious racism, and they were picketing and it made sense. Something had to be done. So on top of my own personal experience, that led me to take on festival programming myself as a point of kind of cultural activism.
JT: I'm curious also about your move from New York to Los Angeles and how that affected your work.
SF: When I came to LA, I was the complete opposite of LA. I didn't like it. I was there for love. But something that Cooper said to me in my first [Outfest] interview made me feel like maybe there was a place for me. He said, "You're really different from a lot of people that we generally work with, and we're interested because you're different." I was from New York, experimental background, person of color, lesbionic, and maybe even the way that I was talking in that interview, I think it was just different from what Outfest was at the time.
Then as soon as Cooper brought me to Outfest, there was an opportunity for a consultancy at Sundance. Essentially he was trying to give me enough work year-round so that I could stay at Outfest. I didn't really see that coming but I just couldn't say no, even though I didn't want to get back into film festival programming. But when I interviewed, that's when they offered me the programming position. I have no regrets, other than my filmmaking career has suffered tremendously [laughs].
JT: Do you plan to get back into filmmaking at some point?
SF: I never really left it. It's always taken me years to make something. And I've actually bitten off a really big project. Right now I'm in the middle of a feature project, and I'm kind of ambivalent about making a feature now, but it has these other elements to it. There's an exhibition part of it for science museums and a site-specific installation. It's all about water crisis. So it's kind of still there. It's on the back burner, developing slowly but surely.
JT: What was the hesitation with making a feature?
SF: There were a couple of reasons. I started it because it was a challenge, something I had never done before. But it started a long time ago when the economy was different. The way that I had conceived the budget and production outscales what's possible right now. So now I'm at a crossroads where I've written a script that's really expensive, but a story that I believe in. So I need to retool it so that it's feasible to make and also meets where I am artistically, which has changed over the years. It's sort of the first time that my curatorial process and practice has affected my art making, because it's New Frontier and the expanding ways of telling a story that really affected how I wanted to approach "H2O."
JT: How so?
SF: It went from just a film project to a traveling exhibition as well, to expand the story world so that it's something that you actually walk inside and experience in relationship to body and water and building identity. I would have never thought about that before New Frontier. I started conceiving this project in 2003 before I even learned about this stuff.
It might have happened anyway, had somebody else run New Frontier. Just being part of the world and finding access to this broader way of telling stories, I probably would have ended up in this place.