The 32nd Sundance Film Festival has started yesterday in Park City, Utah, with the traditional press conference headlined by the president of the Sundance Institute – Robert Redford, who founded the festival at his Sundance Resort in 1978, naming it after the character who made him famous. By the way, over the years Sundance film festival gained so much popularity that it had to transfer to the neighboring Park City.
Since it is my first Sundance Film Festival, I was keen on going there and everything I discover I would like to share with my readers. So, when you come down to Utah, there is still an atmosphere of Christmas with beautiful “american style” decorations. People are happily smiling, restaurants are overbooked, and the taxis are carrying rising stars and celebrities up and down the Main street of Park city. “All LA crowd is here!” – I hear the comments now and then.
Enough to say that it is the single most celebrated film festival in North America, beloved as much by serious film devotees as by wide-eyed fans of Hollywood superstars, like legendary actor and director Robert Redford. And each year over 50,000 film-lovers flock to this exciting annual winter event in and around Utah’s scenic Salt Lake City. And many of the world’s leading directors—from Quentin Tarantino and Michael Moore to Alfonso Arua (“Like water for chocolate”), and Mike Newell (“Little Miss Sunshine”) first gained fame when their films premiered at Sundance.
In the years just between 1985 and 2013 alone, roughly 20 million feet of 35mm film were screened at the Festival – enough film reels, that if rolled out, they would stretch from New York to Paris. Competition among directors to have their movies opened here is intense. For example, in 2012 more than 12,000 feature films, documentaries and shorts were submitted to the judges, but less than 200 were selected.
Until January 30, when the winners are announced (by a competitions jury which includes Jon Hamm and Lena Dunham), the ski town is be swarming with Hollywood stars. Here’s where festival-goers could find talent like Matt Damon (“Manchester by the Sea”), Kristen Stewart (“Certain Women”), Anna Kendrick (“The Hollars”), Michael Shannon (“Complete Unknown”), Kate Beckinsale (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) and Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez (“The Fundamentals of Caring,” the festival’s closing night choice) — plus some stellar booze, food, snow gear, swag and fun.
With Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Sundance Festival director John Cooper also in attendance, the annual press conference has become a kind of state of the independent cinema assessment.
This year, however, the controversy surrounding the lack of African American actors in the Academy Awards nominations – for the second year in a row – took center stage at the press conference. Asked for his take on the matter Redford brushed it aside at first, saying: “I’m not into Oscars. I’m not into that.” A few moments later he clarified his stance: “I see the headline: ‘I don’t like the Oscars’. That’s for Donald Trump to say. What I mean is I’m not focused on that part. For me, it’s about the work.”
Nevertheless the topic would not go away, and Redford finally addressed the issue by looking at the big picture: “Diversity comes out of the word independence. It’s a word I operated from principally for most of my life. Diversity comes out of it. It’s an automatic thing. If you’re independent minded, you’re going to do things different than the common form; that’s something we’re genuinely proud of—how we show diversity because it’s tied to the fundamental word of independent.”
Independence, though, is a tough proposition in these times, Redford added. “Independent film is not in a good place … it survives because it has value, but it’s always been tough. It’s tough for films in general. Financing has always been hard. There are threats to distribution. You’ve got streaming. You’ve got online. You’ve got Netflix.”
With 14 sections and dozens of panels and special events, Sundance 2016 is in the perfect position to take on these challenges and, once again, kickstart careers and launch conversations around themes, ideas and esthetics. In 2014 Sundance catapulted the Whiplash team – writer/director Damien Chazelle, actors Miles Teller and Golden Golden winner J. K. Simmons – to the forefront. The same happened last year to director John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which earned star Saoirse Ronan a Golden Globe nomination, among many other accolades.
The 2016 vintage offers a variety of promising titles, from first-time director Nate Parker’s period drama The Birth of a Nation (about a slave rebellion in 1831’s South) to the James-Franco produced Goat, about the cruel rituals of frat pledges, and starring Nick Jonas. Redford has a special place in his heart for documentaries, of which Sundance has always been a rich purveyor of titles and talent. “On a personal level, I’ve always been a huge fan of documentaries,” Redford said. “I want (the festival) to serve as a platform to elevate docs and see they are much closer to narrative films.”
The HFPA has a long relationship with both the Sundance Institute and the Festival, supporting their activities throughout the years with grants. According to Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam “the HFPA and Sundance share an alignment about the importance of developing creative culture and film culture and celebrating exciting voices. It’s been incredibly important to us that the HFPA has chosen to support our work in international feature films because… we love finding and supporting international artists whose work we believe in.”
While the Festival’s core draw is the chance to see a whole raft of exciting, cutting-edge new films, everything from costume dramas and comedies, to short animated films, to political and social documentaries, the sheer fun and funky atmosphere at Sundance is also a major magnet. Unlike other more staid movie fairs, Sundance Festival doesn’t have segregated red carpets and there’s no dudes in tuxedos.
Here, everyone is warmly welcomed and everybody – from famous film stars and celebrated directors to regular ‘just us’ movie lovers – all attend screenings together. So there’s not just movie magic here, but awesome people-watching, too. Hey, is that Johnny Depp crossing the Main street over there? Was that Matt Damon buying a snack? Yes, and there is no wonder, as there could be just another star sitting right behind you! We are in America, Sundance Film Festival. That’s how it is.
Diana Avgusta Stauer