The Sundance Institute has named the participants and projects set for the 2023 editions of a pair of its flagship programs: the Screenwriters Lab and Screenwriters Intensive.
Lab participants will include Joseph Sackett (Cross Pollination), Sean Wang (Dìdi (弟弟)), Abinash Bikram Shah (Elephants in the Fog), Gabriela Ortega (Huella), Walter Thompson-Hernández (If I Go Will They Miss Me), Hadas Ayalon (In a Minute You’ll Be Gone), Bernardo Cubría, John Hibey & Joshua Penn Soskin (Kill Yr Idols), Dania Bdeir & Bane Fakih (Pigeon Wars), Rashad Frett & Lin Que Ayoung (Ricky), Farida Zahran (The Leftover Ladies), Masami Kawai (Valley of the Tall Grass) and Audrey Rosenberg (Wild Animals).
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Those set for the Intensive are Keisha Rae Witherspoon & Jason Fitzroy Jeffers (Arc), Shireen Alihaji (Blue Veil), Spencer Cook & Parker Smith (Lame), Jesahel Newton-Bernal (Leche), Cynthia Lowen (Light Mass Energy), Rebin Zangana (Qareen), David Liu (Santa Anita), Urvashi Pathania (Skin), Ciara Leina`ala Lacy (Untitled Eddie Aikau Biopic) and Faye Ruiz (Wishes Sink in Man-Made Lakes).
Participants for these programs had their projects selected from over 2000 submissions and will further develop scripts with the guidance of advisors under the leadership of Michelle Satter (Founding Senior Director, Sundance Institute’s Artist Programs) and Ilyse McKimmie (Deputy Director, Feature Film Program).
The Screenwriters Lab will take place in person at the Sundance Mountain Resort from January 14-18. Selected writers will there be supported by Artistic Director Jessie Nelson, along with Creative Advisors Ritesh Batra, Linda Yvette Chávez, Scott Frank, Phil Hay, Eliza Hittman, Attica Locke, Walter Mosley, Marti Noxon, Nicole Perlman, Howard Rodman, Dana Stevens, Joan Tewkesbury, Lulu Wang, Bill Wheeler, Tyger Williams, Virgil Williams and Doug Wright. The Lab will be dedicated to the memory of Sundance’s Douglas McGrath — a generous Creative Advisor to over 200 writers in his 20 years participating in the program, who passed away several months ago.
The Screenwriters Intensive is a two-day online workshop, taking place from March 2-3, which will aid another set of up-and-coming writers in the development of their first fiction features.
“We’re looking forward to kicking off a new year of the Screenwriters Lab, supporting the bold visions of a stellar group of storytellers. All of their work has the power to impact audiences through their unique voices, personal perspectives and exciting and unheard stories,” said Sundance’s Satter. “Over five days, our Advisors and Fellows will be immersed in story meetings, craft workshops, and conversations that will form a foundation of year-round support and the beginning of a creative community that will last throughout the full journey of bringing these films to worldwide audiences.”
Sundance’s McKimmie adds that “the Screenwriters Intensive allows us to extend the breadth of our support to a wider group of emerging independent artists, and we’re thrilled to include such an extensive range of stories, genres, and essential voices in the cohort. We feel privileged to provide vital creative guidance and meaningful community at a crucial moment in the development of these projects.”
Sundance’s Feature Film Program Labs have been supporting and championing groundbreaking independent filmmakers for four decades. Past participants include Charlotte Wells (Aftersun), Nikyatu Jusu (Nanny), Tatiana Huezo (Prayers for the Stolen [Noche de Fuego]), Lyle Corbine Jr. (Wild Indian), Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats), Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Fernando Frias de la Parra (I’m No Longer Here), Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Edson Oda (Nine Days), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), Dee Rees (Pariah), Nia DaCosta (Little Woods), Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), and Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), among many others.
Program-supported projects set to world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, taking place this month, include birth/rebirth (written by Laura Moss and Brendan O’Brien, with Moss directing), Cassandro (written by Roger Ross Williams and David Teague and directed by Williams), Fancy Dance (written by Erica Tremblay and Miciana Alise and directed by Tremblay), Mutt (written and directed by Vuk Lungulov-Klotz), The Starling Girl (written and directed by Laurel Parmet), A Thousand and One (written and directed by A.V. Rockwell) and The Pod Generation (written and directed by Sophie Barthes), which is the 2023 recipient of the Institute’s Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize.
More information on the writers and projects selected for the 2023 Sundance Lab and Intensive can be found below.
Sundance Screenwriters Lab
Joseph Sackett (Writer/Director) with Cross Pollination (U.S.A.): In this queer sci-fi rom-com, an alien arrives on Earth with one mission: to introduce his DNA into the human gene pool and propagate his species. But he encounters unexpected—and very human—complications when he falls in love with the man who knocks him up.
Joseph Sackett received his MFA in Directing from NYU Tisch Graduate Film. He was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film and was a 2022 Martha MOCA Resident. His first feature, Homebody, won the Emerging Talent Award at Outfest and is available to stream on Fandor.
Sean Wang (Writer/Director) with Dìdi (弟弟) (U.S.A.): Fremont, CA. 2008. In the last month of summer before high school begins, an impressionable 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy learns what his family can’t teach him: how to skate, how to flirt and how to love your mom.
Sean Wang is a filmmaker from Fremont, CA. He is a 2020 Sundance Ignite Fellow, 2021 SFFILM Rainin Grantee, and 2022 Sundance Institute & Asian American Foundation Fellow. His latest short film, H.A.G.S (Have A Good Summer), was acquired by the New York Times Op-Docs.
Abinash Bikram Shah (Writer/Director) with Elephants in the Fog (Nepal/France): In Nepal, a group of trans women have banded together at the margins of their community, patrolling the village to keep wild elephants at bay. Pirati, the matriarch of this makeshift family, has her plans to embark on an independent life suddenly derailed when one of her daughters goes missing.
Abinash Bikram Shah is an award-winning writer/director based in Nepal. His films have won many awards, including a Special Jury Mention at Cannes in 2022 for his short film Lori. He has written films that have premiered in Berlinale and Venice and were Nepal’s official entry for the Academy Awards.
Gabriela Ortega (Writer/Director) with Huella (Dominican Republic / U.S.A.): Following the death of her family’s matriarch in the Dominican Republic, a disenchanted flamenco dancer living in New York City must rid herself from her ancestor’s curses to pave her own future.
Gabriela Ortega is a multi-disciplinary artist from the Dominican Republic. She is a Sundance Interdisciplinary Program and Academy of Motion Pictures fellow, and is one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Her work draws cultural bridges that lead to the Caribbean through intersectionality, duality and ancestral memory.
Walter Thompson-Hernández (Writer/Director) with If I Go Will They Miss Me (U.S.A.): Twelve-year-old Lil Ant begins to see mysterious figures—eerie men with their arms spread like wings—around his home. When his father, Big Ant, realizes his son sees these “airplane people” too, their family history emerges and reveals deeper meaning and connection between them.
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-born and raised filmmaker. His short film If I Go Will They Miss Me won the 2022 Sundance U.S. Fiction Short Film award, and he’s currently in post-production on his first feature. Before transitioning to film, Walter worked as a journalist for The New York Times.
Hadas Ayalon (Writer/Director) with In a Minute You’ll Be Gone (Israel): A middle-aged lesbian couple are struggling with the death of their son when an unexpected letter from a sperm bank puts their relationship to the test, forcing them to confront their loss and their identity as mothers.
Hadas Ayalon is a director, screenwriter and film editor living in Tel Aviv. Her first short film Paris on the Water (2014) won the Student Academy Award and the Israeli Academy Award for Best Narrative Short. In a Minute You’ll Be Gone is her first feature film.
Bernardo Cubría (Co-writer), John Hibey (Co-writer), & Joshua Penn Soskin (Co-writer, not attending) with Kill Yr Idols (U.S.A.): In the Rio Grande Valley, just north of the Mexico/US border, the friendship of two teenage boys is tested as they embark on a whirlwind punk rock odyssey to escape their realities and seize their dreams. Recipient of the Sundance Institute Comedy Fellowship.
Bernardo Cubría is a Mexican award-winning screenwriter and playwright. He is currently in the writers room for Acapulco on Apple TV+. Cubria is the co-writer of Kill Yr Idols, with Carlos López Estrada attached to direct, and the writer of Like It Used To Be, with Gina Rodriguez to direct and star.
John Hibey co-wrote and produced the two-time Sundance award-winning film Fishing Without Nets (short and feature versions.) He is currently working with director Carlos López Estrada on Kill Yr Idols, and is developing a project for Warner Brothers with director Alfonso Gomez Rejon.
Joshua Penn Soskin is an award-winning director, writer and photographer. He developed and co-wrote the border comedy Kill Yr Idols (to be directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada) and is in pre-production on his feature directorial debut, The Rooster Prince, a personal story of losing his brother to bipolar.
Dania Bdeir (Co-writer/Director) & Bane Fakih (Co-writer) with Pigeon Wars (Lebanon/Canada/France): Rana, a feisty & competitive woman avoiding a secret from her past, becomes obsessed with the male-dominated pigeon wars of Beirut. She befriends Hassan, a kindred spirit with an inner struggle of his own, and against the backdrop of growing political crisis in Beirut, they embark on a mission to catch a rare bird – the Nicobar.
Dania Bdeir is a Lebanese director with an MFA in film from NYU Tisch. Her latest short Warsha (Criterion Channel) won the Jury Prize for Best International Fiction Short at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival along with 90 awards since its premiere. Pigeon Wars will be her debut feature.
Bane Fakih is a Lebanese filmmaker whose shorts Assil and Jad and Vibes screened at Palm Springs ShortsFest and Outfest. After her MFA from Columbia University, Fakih received the Ezra Litwak Award for Screenwriting Distinction. Her feature screenplay Keep It Together was shortlisted for the 2019 Tribeca All Access program.
Rashad Frett (Co-writer/Director) & Lin Que Ayoung (Co-writer) with Ricky (U.S.A.): Newly released after being locked up in his teens, 30-year-old Ricky navigates the challenging realities of life post-incarceration, and the complexity of gaining independence for the first time as an adult.
Rashad Frett is an award-winning Caribbean American filmmaker who pursued a master’s degree from NYU Grad Film after experiencing 9/11 as a U.S. Army combat medic. He’s a recipient of a DGA Student Film Award, a Spike Lee Production Grant, the Cary Fukunaga Production Grant, and Ryan Murphy’s HALF Initiative.
Lin Que Ayoung is an award-winning writer/director/producer and graduate of NYU Grad Film. Her film Cracked won The Spike Lee Production Grant and a King Wasserman Award for Best Graduate Film at NYU’s First Run Festival. Cracked world premiered at Tribeca and is streaming on HBO Max & Hulu.
Farida Zahran (Writer/Director) with The Leftover Ladies (Egypt/U.S.A.): A 60-something woman has her life turned upside down when her polygamous husband, who had been happily ensconced with his second wife, unexpectedly expresses a renewed interest in their stale relationship.
Farida Zahran is an Egyptian writer/director based in Brooklyn. Most recently, she wrote on the acclaimed television series Ramy (A24 & Hulu). Her short film, Youth, premiered at SXSW in 2019 and won an Oscar-qualifying award at Palm Springs. Zahran is a graduate of the NYU Grad Film Program.
Masami Kawai (Writer/Director) with Valley of the Tall Grass (U.S.A.): A discarded TV/VCR combo set circulates through the lives of various working-class indigenous characters of color in an Oregon town. They find forgotten memories, love, and connection through this seemingly obsolete object.
Masami Kawai is a Los Angeles-born filmmaker of Ryukyuan descent. She is an Assistant Professor of Filmmaking at the University of Oregon. She participated in the Gotham Project Market and Film Independent’s FastTrack. Her films have screened at various venues, including the Rotterdam Film Festival, LACMA, and Palm Springs ShortFest.
Audrey Rosenberg (Writer/Director) with Wild Animals (U.S.A.): After a fatal mistake makes her the pariah of her insular and devout 19th century farming community, Frances becomes consumed with hunting down a mythic beast, at the cost of her family’s reputation and safety. Recipient of the Sundance Institute Horror Fellowship, supported by K Period Media Fund Foundation.
Audrey Rosenberg is an award-winning writer/director. They write genre work, predominantly gothic, folk, psychological, and body horror with queer and female characters at the helm. Their short film Skin received a Special Jury Mention at Outfest (2019). Rosenberg has written for television while developing Wild Animals in several residencies.
Sundance Screenwriters Intensive
Keisha Rae Witherspoon (Co-writer/Director) & Jason Fitzroy Jeffers (Co-writer) with Arc (U.S.A.): Ev is a paranoid young hustler who believes his mother was abducted by aliens when he was a boy. When a mysterious woman descends on his city sermonizing about extraterrestrial salvation, he thinks reunion awaits him, unaware that this seemingly joyful deliverance will soon be threatened by a looming hurricane.
Keisha Rae Witherspoon is a Miami-based filmmaker. Her debut short film T screened at BlackStar, Sundance Film Festival, AFI and others, and won the 2020 Golden Bear for Best Short Film at Berlinale. She is co-founder of Third Horizon Film Festival, and a 2022 USA Fellow.
Jason Fitzroy Jeffers is a filmmaker from Barbados who has produced award-winning short films such as Papa Machete and T that have screened at festivals such as Sundance Film Festival, TIFF, BlackStar, and Berlinale. He is also co-founder of Third Horizon Film Festival in Miami.
Shireen Alihaji (Writer/Director) with Blue Veil (U.S.A.): In the wake of 9/11, a First-Gen Muslim teenager discovers her mother’s cassette tapes. As music unlocks memories, Amina discovers who she is.
Shireen Alihaji is a First Gen, Ecuadorian-Iranian, Muslim, and disabled filmmaker. Her intersections inspire her to create space through film technologies. Given how we remember is pivotal to healing, her films use memory as a central gaze to de-internalize surveillance, uncensor the imagination and mirror our infinite reflections.
Spencer Cook (Co-writer/Director) and Parker Smith (Co-riter/Director) with Lame (U.S.A.): When their federal funding is cut, a disabled man and his roommate/caregiver become small-time con artists to survive, extorting small businesses for minor ADA violations.
Spencer Cook is a writer, director, and lifelong wheelchair user. His first short, Act of God, has won many awards, including Best U.S. Short at the Palm Springs ShortsFest and an Audience Award at SXSW 2022.
Parker Smith is a filmmaker based in Austin, Texas, originally from Louisville, Kentucky. His first film, the documentary feature Ramblin’ Freak, premiered at SXSW in 2017. For many years he was caretaker for Spencer Cook. This relationship was the basis for their 2022 SXSW Audience Award-winning short, Act of God.
Jesahel Newton-Bernal (Writer/Director) with Leche (U.S.A.): Eighteen-year-old Alma’s purposeful and happy life is disrupted when she must cope with the shock of intrafamily sexual abuse. Alma’s love for her close-knit family forces her to maintain the facade that nothing has changed, resulting in the absolute loneliness that comes with pretending.
Jesahel Newton-Bernal is a writer/director born and raised in Ecuador with an MFA from Columbia University. She is currently working towards developing her first feature film. Newton-Bernal strives to use film as a means of collaborative social change, to enrich our understanding of the world and our role in it.
Cynthia Lowen (Writer/Director) with Light Mass Energy (U.S.A. / Switzerland): Light Mass Energy is the story of Mileva Marić Einstein, who confronted rampant discrimination to become one of the first women in physics and an essential contributor to the theory of relativity. As barriers to her career overwhelm her, Mileva battles mental illness and her own exclusion from history. Recipient of the Sloan Development Fellowship.
Cynthia Lowen is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and writer. She’s the director/producer of Battleground (STARZ) and Netizens (HBO) and is the producer/writer of Bully (Netflix/PBS). Lowen is also winner of the National Poetry Series for her collection ‘The Cloud That Contained the Lightning’ about the making of the atomic bomb.
Rebin Zangana (Writer) with Qareen (U.S.A.): Haunted by a supernatural force, a Kurdish American man struggles to start a new life with his American fiancee while dealing with the reappearance of his estranged father.
Rebin Zangana is a Kurdish American writer from Ohio. He writes horror and comedy featuring immigrant leads. His work has placed at Los Angeles CineFest, Filmmatic, and Austin Film Festival, among others. He’s currently in post on his horror short film, The Man in the Sky Won’t Let Me Sleep.
David Liu (Writer/Director) with Santa Anita (U.S.A.): Summer, 2004. Strange, interconnected events transform three generations of lives in the Southern California foothills — an aging heiress haunted by visions of her dead mother, an aspiring young female novelist running a video game arcade, and a trio of teenage musicians caught in an increasingly tense dispute between local gangs.
A USC film school alumnus and native of the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, David Liu‘s work as a screenwriter and director is supported by the Sundance Institute, SFFILM, IFP/Gotham, ARRAY, Visual Communications, and CAPE. He most recently penned three episodes of Taiwan Crime Stories for Imagine Entertainment (Disney+).
Urvashi Pathania (Writer/Director) with Skin (U.S.A.): A body-positivity influencer enters a desperate bid to save her self-loathing sister when the latter becomes a test subject for their aunt’s plastic surgery and skin-lightening racket. Recipient of the Sundance Institute Horror Fellowship, supported by K Period Media Fund Foundation.
Urvashi Pathania is a writer/director based in Brooklyn. Her films explore gender, sexuality, and cultural bereavement. Her short film, Beast, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and screened in select theaters nationally before Jordan Peele’s Nope. Her short Unmothered is available on HBO Max.
Ciara Leina`ala Lacy (Writer) with Untitled Eddie Aikau Biopic (U.S.A.): Legendary Native Hawaiian big wave surfer, Eddie Aikau, breaks into the scene of global surf culture while facing colonization of the sport. Set in sprawling 1970s Hawai’i, this is the story of how the Aikau name became synonymous with groundbreaking big wave surfing, the Hokulea, and the reclamation of the most revered sport in Hawaiian history.
Ciara Leina`ala Lacy is a filmmaker whose Native Hawaiian identity drives her work’s intimacy and authenticity. She is the inaugural Sundance Merata Mita Fellow. Other supporters include Tribeca, Nia Tero, Princess Grace Foundation, NACF, PIC, ITVS, MacArthur, and Firelight. Her films have screened at festivals including Sundance and Berlinale.
Faye Ruiz (Writer/Director) with Wishes Sink in Man-Made Lakes (U.S.A.): Two trans teens secretly living in the attic of a cheap-seat movie theater spend an endless summer trying anything and everything to start hormone replacement therapy.
Faye Ruiz is a filmmaker whose interests lie in telling the stories of trans women of color. She was a recipient of Sundance’s 2021 Uprise Grant, one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 2021 New Faces and had her recent short film The Lights are on, No one’s Home distributed by DEDZA Films.
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