The Sundance Film Festival is Political, Despite Itself
The Sundance 2017 opening day press conference was foregrounded by politics, identity, and identity politics.
With the shadow of tomorrow's presidential inauguration looming, politics surfaced organically at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's opening press conference. When Robert Redford, President and Founder of the festival, spoke about its inception—as a development program for artists, a precursor to today's Sundance Labs—he said that he had initially turned to the National Endowment for the Arts.
"There were a lot of stories that were not being told, filmmakers that were not being seen," Redford said. "I thought, well, maybe we can broaden the mainstream industry by adding independent film. Create a space and a place for new artists to come and develop their stories. It was a nonprofit, so we were restricted on the back-end. I needed some kind of imprimatur, so I went to the NEA for a grant. They gave us $25,000."
As Keri Putnam, Executive Director of Sundance Institute, mentioned shortly thereafter, Trump's proposed budget cuts, announced today, target the elimination of the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. They also aim to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
"We don’t occupy ourselves with politics, per se. We stay focused on the stories being told by artists. That’s our main drive." — Robert Redford
"Right before we came up here, we read an article about the proposed budget cuts," said Putnam. "This isn't a question just for filmmakers. This is a human issue. It's about free expression, about what role the arts play."
As Putnam pointed out, the total amount of proposed cuts is $741 million, or about .016% of the federal budget. "It feels hard to imagine that being a real budget cut measure," Putnam continued. "It feels more like a statement about the arts. People should speak up for what role arts bring to our culture and our lives and our world."
"We need to stay alert," echoed John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival. "The only way things are going to change is if the American public demands the things that were taken away."
When a journalist confronted Redford directly about the festival's relationship to politics, however, Redford remained adamantly nonpartisan. "Presidents come and go," he said. "The pendulum swings back and forth. It always has. We don’t occupy ourselves with politics, per se. We stay focused on what are the stories being told by artists. That’s our main drive. If politics comes up in the stories, so be it, but we don’t play advocacy. We’re just here to support the stories being told."
Yet tonight, the Sundance Film Festival opens with an inherently political film: Al Gore's hotly-anticipated An Inconvenient Sequel, a follow-up to the politician and activist's efforts to raise awareness about and curb the effects of climate change.
When asked about that programming decision at a media roundtable following the conference, Putnam said that she viewed climate change as a "human issue, not a political issue," and that she "[didn't] think that most people feel that climate change isn’t real."
"We're always looking for something that’s going to kick us off with a bang," she continued. "We want to open with something where people are engaging with stories with their full selves, and we felt like this film deserved that slot."
Incidental or not, the confluence of Sundance's programming decisions and the changing political climate shed light upon the institute's role in modern society.
"Every film is a political film. It’s important to think about things that matter to you in light of current events." — David Lowery
"Artists can help us imagine new possibilities," said Putnam. "That’s what artists do—they allow us to think about things in new ways, and create new ways for us to empathize and connect with issues."
Cooper emphasized the festival's commitment to artists and their stories. Under the new administration, he said that Sundance was "going to do what we’ve always done. What independent film does is show the human side of who we are and what we are. It’s where we go to get these stories of other people, other places, issues from a different angle. We’re going to stand behind our artists."
"It’s time to support free expression," Putnam added. "Support equality and importance of all voices. The idea that diverse voices make a difference. These things have always been a part of Bob’s founding vision and the programming here."
Sundance's statistics this year reflect these sentiments. Though Putnam said that the festival doesn't employ quotas, the lineup boasts 40% female directors. 33% of the films selected were directed by people of color.
"We always have diversity in mind because it is a part of our DNA," Putnam said.
Sydney Freeland (Drunktown's Finest) and David Lowery (Pete's Dragon, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) sat on the press conference panel alongside Redford. Considering their responsibility as the very artists Sundance elevates, both filmmakers vowed not to be sanctimonious in their work.
Freeland, a Sundance Labs alum who is Native American and grew up on a reservation in Utah, said, "It’s important for me to not make a soapbox. Story is paramount. I’m trying to find stories that have a sense of authenticity to them."
"I do suddenly realize, as a filmmaker, you have a podium," said Lowery. "I don’t want to turn that into a soap box and shout from it. But I realize the things I say matter and will be heard. There’s some weight to that. Every film is a political film. It’s important to think about things that matter to you in light of current events."
As the conversation delved deeper into political marshlands, Redford urged the audience to stay optimistic.
"In terms of what's going on right now and the fearful feeling a lot of people have that darkness is closing in," he said, "you want to look for where the light is going to come. I think people are going to be galvanized. Those people who weren’t interested are now going to realize they’re going to be directly affected. I hope and think this will be followed by a movement."
Admittedly, one recent realization caught Redford off guard. When journalists and publicists urged him to commemorate the 40th anniversary of All the President's Men last year, he demurred, insisting that nothing new could be said about the film.
"But they pushed me hard to revisit it," Redford recounted. "And I saw something that really stunned me. When they had the hearings about the investigation against Nixon, the panel was made up precisely of both sides. Both Democrats and Republications, all acting as one, trying to get to the truth. That hit me like a ton of bricks. There was a time when the two sides did work together. That’s what makes you depressed about today."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.