Cinema Studies professor's documentary garners applause and a major award at Sundance

February 9, 2024 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Brett Story recently returned from the Sundance Film Festival where the documentary she co-directed not only premiered, it also won the festival’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for the Art of Change. The assistant professor at the Cinema Studies Institute is back on campus and spoke to Arts & Science News about her movie, her time at Sundance and the valuable lessons she’s passing on to her students.

Tell us about your film, Union.

Union is a documentary chronicling the organizing efforts of a group of Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York who organized the first ever successful union campaign at an Amazon facility. We were there from day one, and we filmed for almost three years documenting their efforts to form an independent union without institutional affiliation. When they won their election, they became the first Amazon union in America. But it’s not just a film about employees versus the employer, it’s really a film about how hard it is to organize people.

And we didn't know they were going to win. In fact, the decision to make the film — that it was worth documenting their process — was made independent of any kind of real evaluation of whether or not they had the capacity to win. It didn't seem like they could win. This was basically a small group of people outside, under a tent trying to unionize a workplace that even the Teamsters deemed unsuitable.

How was the experience of being at Sundance?

A profile picture of Brett Story.
Brett Story is an award-winning filmmaker, geographer and writer. Her films have screened in festivals around the world, including CPH-DOX, the Viennale, SXSW, True/False, and Sheffield DocFest.

It's got the aura of a very glamorous festival, but it takes place at a very high elevation in Park City, Utah, which is a ski town. It's very snowy, so instead of red carpet glamour, everyone's wearing snow boots and sweaters.

But it's so exciting, especially the first weekend. There's tons of press, all the critics are in the room, all the buyers. Part of the hype around Sundance is that it’s a big market. So it's not just the prestige, it's also knowing there's an opportunity to get distribution. A lot of independent films, including my own that go to Sundance don't have a distributor, so we don't know where anyone's going to be able to see this film outside of a festival.

The hope is that at Sundance, you can get someone to distribute it. That didn't happen for us yet. We're still waiting to see if anyone's going pick it up. It's a bit of a hot button film. Obviously, Amazon isn't going to buy it.

But realistically, when the media landscape is dominated by media tech companies, one has to ask whether any of them want to touch a film about a scrappy labour movement that took on one of the world's biggest companies. We’re optimistic that someone will pick it up because it’s an exciting story and we think we did it cinematic justice in our film.

How was the screening of your movie?

Watching it with an audience was a really special, beautiful experience. People laughed and cried, and we got a big standing ovation. For me, part of the joy of making a film is watching how other people respond to it. It's then out of my own mind and into the imaginations of others.

The participants in the movie were at the screening as well?

Yes, not everybody, but we brought eight people. You’re not always able to do that. It's very expensive, and people have complicated lives. But it was important for us. The film honours their hard work. They showed a lot of vulnerability, allowing us into their lives.

And it's only fair that the rewards of making a film like getting applause, or having people tell you that it's amazing don't just accrue to the filmmakers. Those should be felt by the people who are in the film.

What was your reaction to Union winning an award?

This was the first time I'd ever had a premiere at Sundance, so it was a big deal. I tend to not have expectations about these things, that keeps me from disappointment. But it's a huge honour to even be at Sundance. We only finished the film six days before the festival started.

You’re back on campus. How does your filmmaking impact your teaching?

The great thing about having taught last term was that I could tell students in real time what I was struggling with, with the construction of the film. At one point we couldn’t decide on our opening, and my co-director and I were having this artistic disagreement, so I could talk to them about that process and show them the different possible openings. I think it was fun for them to see me go through that and complete the film.

What’s your advice to students thinking of making a movie?

It's important to understand that failure is part of the process. The only way to learn how to make a film is to actually make one. If there isn't the possibility that what you try might fail, then you're not actually trying anything at all.

A lot of the exercises I'm doing in my class right now are about limitation. We just did an exercise where the students made a film but were only allowed to use one shot. Their next exercise is to make a sound film in which they're not allowed to have any images. There's something about these kinds of limitations that helps them understand the tools a little better, and hopefully take risks.

One doesn’t just “become” a filmmaker overnight. It is a practice like any other, and the most important thing is to not let oneself get discouraged. I got a film in Sundance and won a big award. It's huge for my career. But this is my fourth feature film and I've been making films for over 15 years. I could have given up after my first film didn't get into Sundance, but I didn't and I learned from it.

Can you show Union to your class?

Right now we're on a festival rollout. I won’t be able to have a public screening until we have a festival screening. I hope to report soon on where the film will play in Toronto. It makes a difference to watch something with a big audience, so I will probably show them scenes but will wait until the film is playing in a theater to invite them all. And then yes, absolutely, we will hopefully show it at Innis!