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One of Sundance’s most anticipated events, in a festival loaded with highly anticipated events, is Robert Redford’s annual “State of the Fest” hour-long press conference, which takes place the day before the festival begins each year. Redford answers questions from the world’s press corps, and generally reveals whatever is on his mind. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, as he deftly intertwines fond memories from the past, with news of the day, and his hopes for the future. This year he was joined on the stage by new festival director John Cooper, occupying the departed Geoffrey Gilmore’s usual seat of honor.


Robert Redford

The first topic of this day was one that Redford always touches on- documentaries. “Documentaries have always been very important to me, starting back in the late 80’s,” he began. “Most of them I’ve been involved with are not known about, like the movie “Tony and I”, which I had no idea where it was going to go, but I knew it was going to go somewhere.” 


“We started promoting documentaries ‘cause they were, as you know, they were reduced to a small menu mostly going into education systems, PBS and things like that. Well, some things came together. One- globalization began to occur, and Two- we where able to get a tremendous amount of money from George Soros’ Human Rights Fund, which was only funding in international human rights issues at that time. We were able to convince him he might get better use of his money with our process, enabling us to expand our documentary program.”


We started to increase the platform, creating something called "The House of Docs," and so on and so forth. And internationally in our lab programs, which I think are the most important part of Sundance. We created the documentary lab, and we bring not only domestic filmmakers but international filmmakers there. 


He continued, “We have the question about tomorrow, the next decade. It's one thing that I think we do spend a lot of time on; I think Sundance does spend time taking the long view, even though I don't think America is known for taking the long view. I think we are short view country.”


“I think that by expanding the opportunities for documentaries that can be seen around the world, you start to move into areas that are being vacated by the collapsing news media. Where are people going to get the truth? It's going to get pretty confusing out there with bloggers and yada yada yada.” 


“But when you have film, which we feel a lot of pride in bringing here from other countries where a lot of filmmakers risk their lives to tell stories about their villages and their countries, there is a truth that's verifiable. I am thinking that in the future you might see the public looking more at documentaries to get versions of the truth. Our commitment will always be looking way ahead at how we can create new opportunities in that.”


A journalist in the audience asked Mr. Redford if he could talk a little more about the rebirth of the festival and it’s going back to its roots?  “Years ago when I started this, I didn't know how it was going to go, but I did feel strongly about one thing. And that was since it was a new idea, and since it was innovative and involved some risks to get going, I just assumed that we might not last more than maybe 10 years. And that's what we chose- close the doors when we cease to be able to create benefits for individual filmmakers. But as long as we are able to provide opportunities and create new opportunities and also increase the ability of potential audiences to see new work, then that's a good reason to keep going.” 


“During the last few years I’m always aware of ‘how are we with the marketplace?’, ‘how are we doing with changes that are occurring so drastically? ‘are we staying on top of things or are we sliding back?’ Are we afraid to take the chances that we once took to get going? So I felt we were sliding back, I felt we were beginning to flatline and we needed a fresh new approach. And I thought the best thing we could do to be new and fresh was to get more closely back to our roots, to where we were when we first started.”


John Cooper

“As for Geoff Gilmore, back in 1990 Geoff did an amazing job, he came from an archival background at UCLA and he was passionate -- as any of you who know Geoff know, he's passionate and extremely articulate and a great lover of film. But for Geoff, and for us it was simply time for fresh new blood. I think you have to keep renewing yourself from time to time and that goes for many areas, and so that's what’s happening and it just happened to coincide with Geoff's need to move on (to the Tribeca Film Festival).” 


“Now John, John's been here for a long time and he's been doing incredible work for a long time and he's been programming for a long time and he's developed relationships with the filmmakers for a long, long time. So a couple things came forward that are quite exciting; that Geoff moved on to his new adventures, John steps up to do something he could have done all along, and now he has the freedom to be creative on his own. And he's doing it and we'll see the results throughout this festival and I'm pretty excited about it.”


Once again a question from the audience, ‘Looking back over almost 30 years, what would you say is the festival's biggest accomplishment?”  Redford replied, “The thing that's kind of paradoxical but I think we have to be aware of, is that the festival is meant to be fun, loose and easy, and not have the pressure and formalities of losing and carpets and all that stuff. It was always meant to be a place where film people could mingle. We do close Main Street, so people can walk around and see each other and see how that community felt at the time. So here we are in this celebritory time with all these new films that I think are quite exciting, and I think we should celebrate the work that's here. I think keeping your mind on what's happening in the current is a good thing.”


He added, “There've been a lot of bumps and challenges and obstacles along the way, but we've had to survive. Anybody who's come here over the years... it's been clouded by outer forces like the ambush marketers who came in, took over Main Street and took over houses and made it three or four times the amount of money just to get space. They came to promote their own products and hand out swag and get celebrities to come so they can hand out their swag so they could get pictures taken. There's nothing you can do about that, it's a free country. But we are a nonprofit. We run on a shoestring. We can’t compete with the ambush marketers. Now with the economy tanking the way it has, those people are no longer coming.”


When asked about the future, Redford added, “What I hope people will see at this festival are new ideas, exciting new things, fresh new ideas and fresh new faces. I honestly do think we have the best films and the best documentaries in all the world right now. These show the artist's personal point of view. We just show the film. 


He concluded, “The most important part of my life is what I do, which is making art, making film.”


Don’t miss Sundance Film Festival 2011, January 20-30 at its usual location in Park City, Utah! / Issue 113 - September 2018
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