An Open Letter to the Indie Doc field by Assia Boundaoui (The Feeling of Being Watched), Sabaah Folayan (Whose Streets), and Violeta Ayala (Cocaine Prison). Edited by Sonya Childress.

2020 has been a year of reckoning, to say the least. American police continue to execute citizens, particularly those who are Black, brown and indigenous; the president continues to fail catastrophically at the task of protecting citizens as a pandemic brings our country to its knees, and amidst it all, activists in the streets continue to hold power to account. 

Against this backdrop of turmoil, the Sundance Institute joined the ranks of liberal institutions nationwide seeking to distance themselves from complicity in sexist, racist, homophobic systems that cost the lives and livelihoods of so many marginalized people. On June 25th, Executive Director Keri Putnam released a statement outlining a number of steps the Sundance Institute and Festival are taking towards equity and inclusivity, including: conducting a survey of BIPOC artists’ experience with racism at the Festival; reimagining safety at the Festival by centering the experiences of BIPOC artists; provide a dedicated safe space for BIPOC at the Festival; and requiring that all sponsors and venues at the Festival provide security and staff with mandatory anti-racism training. While this statement was admirable on its surface, the words stung to read in light of our experience in Park City six months ago. 

In January 2020, we joined a privileged cohort of invited guests to the Sundance Film Festival. We were prepared to speak on panels, celebrate our colleagues’ films, build community and pitch new works. We were not prepared for what happened to us the afternoon of January 27th, or for the painful ripples that would reverberate for months. 


 I was making my way through the icy sloping streets of Park City, looking for friends and warmth as the first weekend of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival drew to a close. I pawed at my phone trying to reopen the map and make sure my little blue dot was still floating toward the High West Distillery Saloon. It had been three years since my film Whose Streets? opened the festival. I was now an alum, alongside a number of formidable filmmakers I have the privilege of calling friends — unlike my first year at Sundance, where I had to beg and borrow my way through. Despite years of painful experiences with white-led and centered institutions, I had finally begun to feel a sense of belonging at Sundance. I am 6’1” and a woman, with dark brown skin. I am always hyper-visible. But there are few places where that visibility is married with respect for my capabilities and my voice. It is perhaps because festivals position themselves as spaces of futuristic values (and for brief and beautiful moments sometimes are), that it is so painful when they inevitably regress. I reached High West and saw my good friends Assia and Violeta sitting around the fire. I was excited: over the past few years some of my favorite conversations have taken place outside High West, around that very fire. I sat down and lit a cigarette. It’s part of the Sundance ritual. You go inside, you eat tiny food, drink way too much, you mingle, and if you smoke, you step outside and smoke. Simple pleasures.


It was cold, there was a fire, we were huddled around. A quiet, cozy, unscheduled moment in the middle of the hectic frenzy of Sundance. Violeta and I had met the day before when we spoke on a panel and mused publicly about what it meant to rewrite history and reimagine the future. The audience was rapt and the panel was fire. The next day Sabaah will pitch her new film project to dozens of investors. But today we get to rest and connect. Our conversation meanders from the Western Sahara to Evo Morales, to Trump and children in cages, to dismantling single authorship. Our voices weaving and bobbing with the cigarette smoke as we huddle together, taking comfort in each other, in this white space, in this cold, white town. A security guard suddenly looms over us. He has been hovering since Sabaah sat down. He is not pleased. He sees no comfort or joy in our huddle, just three women of color ‘breaking the rules.’ Rules that are rigidly enforced only when people like us, hang out in places like this. “No Smoking” he barks, pointing to the exit. We stand, politely reasoning with him as we take our smoking to the sidewalk. He shakes his head, says leave, don’t come back.

I tell him he’s rude, and with my back turned, I walk to the sidewalk. He is not pleased. As I pass him he puts both of his hands on the middle of my back and, with the entitlement to my body that only a white man could have, he throws his weight into his arms and violently shoves me. 


I went to Sundance to talk on a panel about my right to imagine my own story. I belong to the oldest people of this land now called the Americas. I was with Assia and Sabaah laughing together when a security guard asked us to leave. He was angry, “You can’t smoke on our premises.” I was confused. Everyone smoked here by the fire-pit. But I stood up and walked towards the exit. By the time I reached the footpath, I turned around to see the security guard pushing Assia in the back violently with his two hands while yelling. I wanted to pull out my phone and film but I watched in fear. 


I stumble, shocked, shook. I raise my arm and stare at the part of my back where he put his hands, astounded that this part of my body has been so casually violated. My hands shaking, I point to my back, I yell, “Keep your fucking hands off my body!” I see the alarm in his widening eyes, he looks around frantically, spots a traffic cop, takes a deep breath and does what so many white men before him have done when confronted with the possibility of accountability – he shouts for the police and with one baldfaced lie transforms himself into the victim : “Officer! Officer! These people are refusing to get off our property!””  


There was the way that he refused to look at me, though I addressed him directly, apologizing for smoking, in hopes of diffusing the situation. I have been in this dynamic so many times. A white man escalates, I de-escalate, and he refuses to look at or acknowledge me, as if eye contact would shatter the illusion he’s created for himself.  I ask, “is it okay if we finish our cigarettes and come back?” he directs his response elsewhere, “this is a private event, we’re closed.” By this point I am off the premises and on the sidewalk, my three companions close behind. I turn around, incredulous, and see he now has both hands on Assia’s body even as he is calling for the police. Calculating quickly, I intercede and approach the officer. I tell the cop my friend has just been assaulted by the High West security guard. I know from experience that our best chance of not leaving in handcuffs is if I am able to calmly but firmly assert the true narrative before the narrative of us as “trespassers” has time to take effect. In true white man fashion, the police officer tells me and my friends to move right along, taking no heed that I told him my friend had just been assaulted. For the next five minutes we stand across the street and watch as the officer and the High West employee confer. The officer never records statements from us, and so as usual, the lies begin. Meanwhile, the three of us are emotional. Assia is traumatized and I am quietly furious, a slow burning rage that can only be triggered by seeing harm come to those I love. I tweet the incident immediately, unsure what will happen next.


We were stunned, motionlessly walking to another cocktail party. I was more of a spectator than a participant, watching all the other filmmakers talking about craft while networking. Assia was crying outside of the toilet and Sabaah was on Twitter. They’d both left and as I was walking out to join them. Keri Putnam, the Executive Director of Sundance walks in looking for us. I was so uncomfortable, I thought she was there to sympathize and offer support. I only remember her saying, “this also happens to white people,” while she gave me the official hotline number to register complaints during the festival.

A few hours later, back at the condo, we convened around a table and put together an email to Sundance with six collective demands: 1) The termination of employment of the security guard who assaulted Assia, 2) A formal apology from High West Distillery, 3) Sundance to revoke High West’s sponsorship of the festival for violating their Code of Conduct, 4) Racial equity training for all temporary staff and security guards working at the festival, 5) A physical safe space for BIPOC artists at the festival, and  6) An independent investigation culminating in a public report of the structural conditions that allow racism to fester at Sundance. 


The rest of that day is a painful blur, few things stand out clearly. I remember stumbling down the street away from “the incident,” the three of us like zombies. We bump into Kat Cizek, she can tell something is wrong, she shepherds us indoors somewhere warm. We huddle and talk. I remember safety in that huddle. Time passes. We move to another building. There are appetizers and drinks and everyone else looks happy. I stumble downstairs to the bathroom, I sit on a bench and try with every fiber of my being not to succumb to a panic attack. I remember Opeyemi Olukemi materializing from thin air and holding  me as a flood of tears and rage flowed out of me. I remember her commandeering the POV house, feeding us and holding space for us to strategize. I remember that Lyric Cabral showed up for us and drove us to the police station. I remember Lauren Pabst and Kathy Im coming to the station and taking off their MacArthur Foundation hats and standing with us. I remember the outpouring from our community at the Firelight party that night. I remember the sincere words and love everyone offered us. I remember the transcendental space of healing that Loira Limbal created with her music. I remember feeling soothed in a moment of alarm, temporarily safe in a fundamentally unsafe place. 


Over the last two days of the festival, the experience followed us like a cloud. White colleagues offered hugs and tsked sadly, some preemptively reassured me that though the incident was unfortunate, it was probably just a jerk having a bad day. I was reminded repeatedly, in so many words, that the arc of the moral universe is long.  The message I internalized was “bummer, but, nothing to see here.” Yet our colleagues of color relayed story upon story of their own experiences of harassment, abuse, assault and threats at this festival and others like it across the country. Since the tweets from the incident had circulated to many at the festival , it seemed I couldn’t walk 10 feet on Main Street without someone stopping me to share an account of rude and unwelcoming behavior, racist micro-aggressions, hostility and sometimes outright violence from the police, private security, as well as others in positions of authority or hospitality at Sundance.


While other filmmakers could prioritize sharing craft and knowledge, forming relationships and furthering their careers in a communal space, we now had the additional task of processing trauma, ours and our community’s, while negotiating for accountability. The only upside was that we were standing together. We knew intuitively that the three of us together would not be easily denied, and we decided to answer what felt like a call, to require that a festival we legitimize with our art and our presence, make itself safe for us. 

In the weeks and months after the incident, we began to negotiate with Sundance to engage in what we hoped would be a process of accountability. Initially, Sundance appeared invested in remedying the harm that had been done to us and taking real steps toward systemic change within the institution. They agreed to most of the accountability steps we proposed on principle, but stopped short of ending their sponsorship with High West, drawing a line in the sand when it came to the bottom line. The result of our call to the hotline was a recommendation that we go to the police and a promise to note the incident with the Utah Attorney General’s office. Meanwhile, the Park City Police Dept. declined to press charges because the information provided by the High West security guard and the officer (who declined to take our statements at the time of the event), conflicted with ours. 

Rather than admit fault or terminate the employment of the security guard, High West went on the offensive, characterizing us as violent and accusing us of trying to, “incite people to retaliate against [High West],” because we posted about the incident on Twitter. We later learned that Constellation Brands, the parent company of High West,  was embroiled in massive human rights violations for water theft from indigenous communities in Mexicali, Mexico. The corporate privatization of water, and its exploitation of communities of color, has been at the centre of countless films at the Sundance festival, over the decades, and it was troubling to learn that the Festival was being sponsored by a corporation that lacked any of the values Sundance purports. We shared this information with Sundance and for weeks we worked to compel them to cancel High West’s sponsorship of the Festival or at the bare minimum to hold their sponsor accountable. On Feb 25, we received a surprising email from Sundance Institute staff telling us that High West and Constellation Brands decided to abruptly terminate their contract with the Festival after years of sponsorship. 

After a month of long calls and long emails, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and our dialogue with the Sundance Institute and the accountability process we had been pushing for two months, abruptly fizzled out. Then on June 25th, Keri Putnam published a public statement entitled, “Racism has no place at Sundance Institute—here are the steps we’re taking,” and we found ourselves stunned to see  our intellectual and emotional labor appropriated  without attribution, after months of silence from staff. 

But in our journey for an elusive and ultimately futile accountability with Sundance, we found our own healing, within each other and our community and within our own process. In the moments after “the incident” it was the informal, unofficial activity in the margins that brought us closure. The outpouring of love and support from our community, the unscripted moments, the building moments, the safe spaces, the nurturing and love, that was EVERYTHING.  

Over the course of our journey we came to understand many things, most importantly that holding powerful institutions accountable necessarily requires us to bend and stretch ourselves into scaffolding. This temporary structure, made of our bones, our energy and labor, is built on the outside of the system of power, and is intended to reform and repair it. But it also unavoidably serves to shield, conceal and fortify it. We have internalized a critical lesson: we are no longer interested in serving as scaffolding to the institutions; we will no longer be complicit in this legitimizing project; we seek liberation. 

We recognize that for years filmmakers and cultural workers from marginalized communities have labored to shift the culture of our industry through reform efforts. We relinquish the work of holding established white-led institutions accountable to the institutions themselves. We hope they find a way. But what we realize now more than ever is that we must be the change we seek. And if we are to scaffold institutions, may they be in our own reflection.

It is for this reason that we decided to form a Community Board, whose mission will be to Center the margins, by formalizing a space where artists of color can envision our industry, collectively, sustainably, freely, with our very own mandate.