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Subcultures and Sundance

March 17, 2014—When Lauren Cioffi (C’10) arrived on the Hilltop as a first-year, she had international relations on her mind. It’s what drew the Southern California native to Georgetown, but she quickly realized it wasn’t for her. She wanted more doing, and less talking, and examinations of policy and procedure didn’t hold her interest.

So she took a year off to recalibrate. Independent film had always intrigued Cioffi, so she hustled to get jobs doing anything she could on a film set. Her pluck and initiative led her to work as a production assistant on three independent films.

That year off was the best thing Cioffi could have done for herself, she said. She returned to Georgetown enlivened at the possibilities in film and switched her major to a self-designed program in film and media studies through the Department of English.

Today, Cioffi is based in Los Angeles and making her living in the film industry. Not only is she making films, but she’s also working for the Sundance Film Festival as a screener—an enviable job that allows her to watch movies just about all day long.

After graduating from Georgetown, Cioffi took a job working on food security issues in Mississippi. “I wanted something completely different,” she said.

Jackson, Mississippi, couldn’t be more diametrically opposite from her upbringing in California. With the city’s emerging art scene and its sense of possibility, Jackson was a place that sowed creativity and innovation, Cioffi said. She easily fell in love with the place.

“The rules hadn’t been written yet. The city was underdeveloped and that gave people a lot of headroom,” she said. “It created this strong, innovative community.”

But it took some time for Cioffi to feel a part of that community. She says people were skeptical of her for her first six months in the city. But over time she was viewed less like a visitor and more like someone interested in taking part in the burgeoning creative climate.

During her time in Mississippi, she became fascinated by the state’s many subcultures. With two collaborators, Cioffi set off on a trip across the state to document the variety of individuals who called Mississippi home.

With a state arts grant and Kickstarter largesse, Cioffi made the documentary film subSIPPI: An Exploration of Mississippi’s Subcultures. “We traveled the state profiling subcultures, bringing them to life and into conversation with their neighbors,” Cioffi said.

Cioffi served as the director of photography on the film and as such was able to use composition to tell the story about a people and a place that are rarely heard from. The film showcased everyone from farmers and fishermen to hip-hop artists and gospel singers and the vast variety in between. It also had an eye on form and aesthetics, things Cioffi gives a great deal of attention to in her work.

Working on subSIPPI deepened her interest in documentary film. It spoke to her more than a narrative film. “I liked the idea of framing the reality that already exists around me rather than creating my own reality,” she said.

After her stint in Mississippi, Cioffi returned to the West Coast to continue her film career, this time as an intern for Sundance. The internship with the prestigious film festival led to a job as a screener. At Sundance, her job is to watch documentary films that are submitted for funding and then recommend the ones she feels have potential.

Trying to find emerging talent has been an “amazing learning experience” for Cioffi. She’s getting exposed to the infinite methods that filmmakers are using to tell stories. And that’s helping to inform her own work.

Her job at Sundance also gives Cioffi time and flexibility to pursue her own work. Soon, she will be heading to Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, to shoot a feature documentary.

Working with fellow Georgetown graduate Kate Stonehill (F’12), who is serving as director for the film, Cioffi plans to spend two months in the Palestinian territory immersing herself in the landscape and collecting Palestinian voices, both supportive and skeptical of the massive development.

After that, Cioffi will be collaborating with another Georgetown alumna, Meg Charlton (C’09), on a short film to be shot in Brazil this fall. She will serve as director of photography for that film as well.

A female director of photography is unique. Few women pursue the more technical side of filmmaking, but it’s something Cioffi wants to change. Through her own films and her work at Sundance, Cioffi feels like she has the ability to advance women in this male-dominated arena.

“I want to promote women in fields where they’re not pushed to the top,” she said. “As documentary film becomes a much larger field, they’re a great way for women to get to the next level.”

—Lauren Ober

Related Information

See the trailer for subSIPPI: An Exploration of Mississippi’s Subcultures