The snow was falling fast and furious on Park City, Utah on Thursday afternoon, but the inside of the Egyptian Theatre was heating up as legendary actor/filmmaker/Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford took the stage to field questions from assembled journalists at the Sundance Day One press conference, moderated by Jon Horn (KPCC’s The Frame). Although Redford tried to avoid the subject of politics, the conversation inevitably turned to incoming President Donald Trump and what effect his administration would have on the role of Sundance and independent film going forward.
“Presidents come and go,” Redford told the crowd. “The pendulum swings back and forth… so we don’t occupy ourselves with politics. We stay away from that because we feel that it’s far more important to support the storytellers and let them tell the stories. If politics comes up in their stories, that’s fine, but we do not take a position.”“We are going to stand behind our artists and support them,” echoed Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper.
It is a question that was bound to arise, especially with the then President-elect Donald J. Trump’s inauguration taking place on Friday. Yet the Sundance Institute remained true to its founder’s word. For example, there is a Women’s March planned to take place in Park City on Saturday, and many Sundance attendees are expected to take part in the day’s events, but the Sundance Institute itself is not officially involved.
While Redford understands that many Americans are nervous about the days and weeks ahead, he doesn’t buy into the current doom-and-gloom rhetoric that seems to be dominating the news cycle and social media feeds.
“In terms of what’s going on right now and a lot of people being fearful, you want to look for where the light is going to come,” Redford said. “In this current dialogue, it looks like a lot could be taken away. I think this could galvanize the people. I think there will be a movement.”
Redford also spoke about the increasing importance of events like Sundance to give a voice to filmmakers whose stories would otherwise go untold. Some of those filmmakers, David Lowery and Sydney Freeland, both of whom are Sundance Lab alums, joined Redford and Horn on stage to discuss similar topics.
Freeland, who is of Native American descent and grew up on a Navajo reservation in Gallup, New Mexico, explained that she was grateful for the opportunity that the Sundance Lab provided her because when she was growing up, filmmaking didn’t seem like a viable option. She wants to “provide some sort of counter narrative” to the current political climate.
“Every film is political,” added Lowery. “It’s important to think about things that matter to you in light of current events, and I think it’s important to say things that need to be said.”
When asked about why he founded Sundance Institute in 1981, Redford said, “It seemed to me at a certain point that there were a lot of stories that were not being told.”
But that wasn’t enough for Redford. “[We’d] succeeded in creating a space for these people to tell their stories, but there [was] nowhere to go. Because the mainstream controlled the exhibition spaces.” And so in 1985, Redford and his colleagues created the Sundance Film Festival, which has blossomed into one of the premiere destinations for independent filmmakers over the years.
It is precisely that spirit that Redford and the members of the Sundance Institute hope to carry forward into the Trump administration and beyond, regardless of politics.
“It’s also a time for us to celebrate and affirm some of the founding values of Sundance, which obviously include the power of art and artists to propel us forward as a society, but also free expression,” added Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam.
The subject of documentary filmmaking, in particular, came up during the wide-ranging conversation, which seemed to ignite a passion in Redford.
“Documentaries have become more and more important as the news media world has shrunk into more of a soundbite world,” Redford said. “Everything is so clipped and short that it gives you no time to digest, no time to contemplate. It’s already moving on to the next event. Therefore I felt that documentaries have a more important role than ever, because it becomes like long-form journalism. It has a chance to really tell the story so the public can really digest it and see how they feel about it.”
Here’s hoping that the next generation of filmmakers take those words to heart.
What do you think of Redford’s comments? What do you think the role of Sundance and independent film should be going forward? Let us know in the comments below.
Image: Dan Casey