Tequia Burt

From ‘Alabamaland’ to Sundance

The family farm inspires this visual artist

After a bad breakup in 2007, April Dobbins ’99 landed on the doorstep of her grandfather’s Alabama farm as a single mother, feeling like a failure.

“Having to return to this place made me feel like I wasn’t able to cut it in life,” she says.

At that moment, Dobbins, an aspiring writer, would never have dreamed that one day she would be tapped by the Sundance Film Festival as a filmmaker with a bright future. But that’s exactly what happened late last year when she was selected as one of four 2017 Sundance Knight Fellows for a five-day residency during the annual film festival.

Recognized for her short-film work and her upcoming documentary feature, Alabamaland, Dobbins attended the festival in January and hobnobbed with film industry leaders at screenings, roundtables, and panels, established relationships with new mentors, and pitched her ideas to award-winning producers and directors from all over the world.

Alabamaland is getting all of this attention, and it’s not even done yet,” she says. “It’s stressing me out. All this recognition and going to Sundance is really life-changing. Now it’s got to live up to all of this hype!”

Dobbins hopes to finish Alabamaland in the next couple of years. Although currently she lives in Miami, she plans to ramp up travel to the farm to once a month to speed up production.

Though Dobbins had spent most of her life trying to leave Alabama behind, it was on her 688-acre family farm that she was finally able to find her voice as a storyteller. She began taking photos to document everyday life on the farm with her grandfather. Though she only had a point-and-shoot camera, Dobbins soon began to experience success as a photographer that had proved more elusive as a writer. She then decided to chronicle her family farm’s history — and its uncertain future — in a documentary.

“When this started out as a photography project, I thought of it as a journal. I’m talking about it as a documentary to high-level execs at companies like HBO, Netflix, and Amazon,” she says. “I was at Sundance pitching this quaint little story about a black family farm, but I was amazed that it resonated with so many different kinds of people.”

As a Grinnell student, Dobbins planned to pursue a theatre major and become an actress, a passion that Professor Sandy Moffett supported. However, after being typecast one too many times in student productions, Dobbins became interested in filmmaking because it gave her more control as an artist. Professor Katya Gibel Mevorach encouraged her to explore filmmaking, so Dobbins wrote and shot a few scenes that she presented at Grinnell’s Africana Studies Conference.

But it was just two years ago that Dobbins wrote and co-directed her first short film, Cutter. Since then she’s worked on numerous others, most recently producing the short film Paradise. Her films have been screened at festivals across the country, including the Los Angeles Black Film Festival, Key West Film Festival, Baltimore International Black Film Festival, and Filmgate Miami’s NoLA Film Festival. Presently, she is earning an M.F.A. in motion pictures at the University of Miami.

Most artists need a day job, so Dobbins is currently the director of prestigious awards and fellowships at the University of Miami. In her role, she advises students who are applying for internationally competitive awards and fellowships. Though she loves motivating those students, one day she would love to focus fully on filmmaking.

“Keep being a dreamer,” she advises. “Sundance is a celebration of artistic folks who took a risk and made a film. They come from all over the world. For some, it’s their first film. Others are established filmmakers. It’s like attending the filmmaker’s version of the Olympics. People are out here making inspiring art against all odds.”

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