Campus & Community

Lending his eye to the visions of others

4 min read

VES leader Moss helps shape documentaries at Sundance Institute

What did you do this summer? It’s been a common refrain across campus in recent days.

The answer for countless students and faculty is that they traveled or just relaxed over the past few months. But many also incorporated work into their schedules, including the chair of Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Robb Moss, who devoted some of his downtime to helping filmmakers realize their dreams.

For the past 12 years Moss has headed west in June to the Sundance Institute, a Provo, Utah-based nonprofit that supports independent storytellers in theater and film. The institute, founded by actor-director Robert Redford, is also the umbrella organization for the popular Sundance Film Festival, a launching pad for everything from indie favorites to feature-length documentaries to mainstream blockbusters. Over the course of eight days, Moss and fellow directors and editors from the United States and around the world gather at the institute to act as creative advisers on a range of documentary projects.

This summer, Moss, an accomplished filmmaker who has six documentaries to his credit, worked on four movies whose subject matter was as varied as it was profound: a transgender man in Turkey; military conflict in the Congo; the deadly world of prostitution in Seattle; and the devastation caused by a massive mud flow in Indonesia.

Moss sees his role as helping emerging as well as established directors, editors, and producers assess what they think they’ve done with their projects, figure out where they want to go, and determine what still needs work. It can be a delicate dialogue, with “complex, intimate kinds of conversations.”

“These are projects that people have poured their lives into,” said Moss in an interview in his Carpenter Center office. “They have to trust us, and we have to earn that trust.”

Much of his work involves “seeing the possibility” in a film’s rough cut. He likened his contributions to that of a trained artist. A casual observer sees a rock, said Moss, but a sculptor can see “the shape and promise of the rock.” Similarly, he said, the professional editors who collaborate on the projects have “an exquisite way of mining films for pieces that can make the most meaning.”

The work unfolds in trailers brought in specifically for the week, temporary offices that double as sound and editing booths and mimic the workspaces typically found on film sets. They are light on frills, said Moss, “just about going in and getting your work done.” The days are long, the work intense; discussions and debates often carry over into the evening hours at a local bar.

Redford checks in during the week. Moss calls him “really smart” and credits his vision for helping expand the reach of documentary film. “This would not happen without his original idea.”

According to Moss, about 100 films have passed through the institute’s labs since he started taking part in 2004. Many have gone on to critical acclaim, most recently “Forever Pure,” which tracks the events surrounding an Israeli soccer club’s acquisition of two Muslim players. The film has captured several awards and will have its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. For Moss, the number of good films coming through the institute’s doors is significant. “It starts to create an impression in the field,” he said. “A community starts to grow and work starts to affect other work.”

Key to that work is the director-editor dynamic, Moss noted. The best editors bring their own sensibility to a project, he said, while remaining true to a director’s vision. As an example he mentioned his first editor, Karen Schmeer, who worked on his 2003 documentary “The Same River Twice” while she was also cutting Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winning “The Fog of War.” Moss lauded her “magical powers,” and said her editing “could not be more expressive of a director’s character and aspiration.”

Moss considers his summer work, like the work he does at Harvard helping develop future generations of storytellers, critical at a time when serious print journalism faces increasing financial constraints and “politics is mediated through Twitter and we have more and more virtual encounters with the world.”

Documentary film, said Moss, is “a kind of exacting way for us to connect with each other,” and a way to “get at parts of the world we would never have a chance to otherwise.”