9 Indie Filmmakers You Should Know

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Photo Source: Jeong Park/Netflix

Independent filmmaking allows for fresh takes, new voices, and innovative approaches to storytelling—and many visionaries are making their mark on the world of cinema today. Here are nine names to keep an eye out for at the movies.  

Radha Blank (“The Forty-Year-Old Version”)

Blank’s 2020 directorial debut (which she also wrote and starred in) won the U.S. Dramatic Competition directing award at Sundance; she was only the second Black woman to win the prize in the festival’s history. The semi-autobiographical film, which was acquired by Netflix, is based on Blank’s own experience of trying to make it as a playwright—and unlikely rapper—in New York City. The movie’s exploration of existentialism, race, middle age, and the price of success made it an intrepid indie breakthrough. 

Alejandro Loayza Grisi (“Utama”)

Bolivian filmmaker Grisi worked as a cinematographer before writing and directing his 2022 feature debut, “Utama”—and his background as a DP shows in the film’s sweeping imagery. His depiction of the beautiful yet severe Bolivian highlands makes the eco-drama as visually stunning as it is devastating. When the film premiered at Sundance, it won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema. It went on to sweep the international indie circuit and was Bolivia’s entry for best international feature at this year’s Oscars. The filmmaker and his brother, producer Santiago Loayza Grisi, have since signed with Cinetic Media.

Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)

Hittman’s previous films—including the short “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” and features “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats”—made her a Sundance favorite from the beginning. But it was “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” that won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award at the festival, jump-starting her rise to fame. The film, which follows a teenager’s attempts to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, is powerful, nuanced, and highly topical. It earned Hittman multiple awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Nikyatu Jusu (“Nanny”)

This writer-director’s work explores themes of Blackness, womanhood, and diaspora in a way that reflects her analytic eye without coming off as pedantic. (She also teaches film studies at George Mason University.) HBO acquired several of her early shorts, including “African Booty Scratcher,” “Say Grace Before Drowning,” and “Flowers”; her 2019 film “Suicide by Sunlight” was recognized at numerous indie film festivals. Her feature debut, the horror film “Nanny,” won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance in 2022. Recently, MGM tapped Jusu to direct the long-awaited sequel to “Night of the Living Dead.” 

Cooper Raiff (“Cha Cha Real Smooth”)

The youngest on this list, Raiff kicked off his career in the most Gen-Z way possible: by tweeting Jay Duplass a link to one of his shorts. In turn, the indie icon recommended that Raiff turn it into a feature-length film. That became 2020’s award-winning “S#!%house,” which paved the way for his second feature, last year’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” The comedy-drama about the vastly different ways that love and friendship can look won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance. He’s since signed on to direct a film about scandal-ridden hockey team the Danbury Trashers, as well as a TV adaptation of Naoise Dolan’s novel “Exciting Times.” Raiff also recently launched his own production company, Small Ideas.

Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”)

If the absurd third-act twist and biting social commentary of 2018’s “Sorry to Bother You” weren’t enough to get everyone talking, the film’s accolades certainly were. Riley’s bold satire about capitalism, exploitation, and racism earned recognition from Sundance and the Film Independent Spirit Awards; his acceptance speech at the latter, in which he criticized the United States’ involvement in the Venezuelan presidential crisis, brought him further into the public eye. Since his feature debut, Riley has continued to develop his surreal style on the Prime Video series “I’m a Virgo.”

Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”)

This Scottish filmmaker screened several award-winning shorts, including “Tuesday” and “Laps,” at international festivals before becoming a fellow at the 2020 Sundance Institute Labs. She used this time to work on her feature debut, “Aftersun,” which won multiple directing awards and garnered an Oscar nomination for Paul Mescal’s riveting lead performance. A poignant depiction of parenthood and depression, the film is both evocative and profoundly moving, promising great things for Wells’ future as a filmmaker. 

Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)

Zhao dreamily explores the space between imagination and reality in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider,” which both earned Independent Spirit Award nominations. The filmmaker continued to explore liminality in 2020’s “Nomadland” through the lens of a modern-day, van-dwelling nomad (Frances McDormand) whose identity, relationships, and sense of home are in flux. The film swept the awards circuit, winning best picture, director, and leading actress at the Oscars—making Zhao the first woman of color to receive a directing statuette. It also earned the Golden Lion at Venice and the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Since then, she’s gone mainstream with Marvel’s “Eternals” and has signed on to direct an adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling “Hamnet.”

Nina Brissey (“Amazing Grace”)

This 2020 short, which Brissey directed, co-wrote, and starred in, touches on difficult topics—alcoholism, PTSD, and children who give their parents emotional support—with a mix of raw grit and that titular grace. The film earned accolades including the audience award at the Burbank International Film Festival. Brissey’s work is equal parts visceral and affecting—and hopefully, she’s just getting started.

This story originally appeared in the May 4 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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