What do you get when you mix the Sundance Institute (See Sundance Institute: Grants for Film), the veritable Holy Grail of independent filmmakers, the Ford Foundation's JustFilms Initiative (See Ford Foundation: Grants for Film) — focused on advancing social justice through film — and George Soros and his Open Society Foundations? Strange bedfellows? Indeed. A powerhouse in documentary filmmaking? For sure.
You can't make films about social injustice, civil rights, and human liberties without involving politics in some way, shape, or form. Sundance was founded on the basis of allowing filmmakers to produce a film without commercial or political pressures. For feature length films, Sundance provides year-long support and has done so for over 300 films. Of course, this support was strictly for feature length films and at its beginning Sundance did not have a program devoted to documentary filmmakers.
The Soros Documentary Fund was launched in 1996, not in Park City Utah, but at George Soros' Open Society Foundations in New York.
In 2002, the Soros Documentary Fund was fully integrated into the Sundance Institute with a $4.6 million grant from the Open Society Foundations and renamed The Sundance Documentary Film Program. In 2009, Open Society awarded Sundance with an additional $5 million grant to continue its documentary filmmaking efforts.
In 2011, the Ford Foundation announced its commitment of $50 million over five years toward the development and production of documentary films in all forms of media (including web-based), focusing on social and humanitarian injustices. Of that $10 million per year in grants, Sundance receives $1 million a year for five years.
Believe it or not, Sundance needs the support. The Institute reportedly receives up to 2,000 documentary proposals annually. Out of those, it chooses to support an average of between 35 to 40 films with up to $20,000 in development funding and up to $50,000 for production and post-production costs. That means that 2% or less of the documentary applicants receive support from one of the most significant and relevant film institutes in the world (read Sundance executive director Keri Putnam's IP profile).
Can Sundance keep Soros' politics, admitted self-importance and, to put it delicately, other controversies, from sullying its good reputation? Some say it already has. Can Ford distance itself from the Soros/Sundance connection? Most likely. Can Sundance or Robert Redford for that matter continue claiming that "art is separate from politics?" Probably not.