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Every year visiting journalists from around the world have the pleasure of hearing what’s on Robert Redford’s mind at a press conference that serves as the official kick-off of each year’s festival. Sundance 2008 was no exception, with Redford and long time Sundance Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore taking the stage, at the historic Egyptian Theater in downtown Park City to let the world know their thoughts on festivals past and the new one about to begin. As is usual at this event,  a featured director is invited to join the pair on stage, last year it was “Chicago 10” director Brett Morgen, and this year, “In Bruges” director Martin McDonough, quite an honor indeed!

Robert Redford always sets the tone here, sometimes chastising Sundance’s many industry attendees for turning the Sundance into a film market instead of a film festival (last year attendees were asked to wear buttons that read “Focus on Film”), reminiscing about the early years when Redford himself would meet arriving journalists at the airport, and pondering issues that are on his mind, which could be anything from politics to festival partying.

This year, Redford addressed politics early on, first speaking about Presidential politics, and then about the politics of the filmmakers at Sundance. “Politics can be used in a very broad sense here. Politics can be what’s going on in life today versus the flavor of the year, or this period of time,” he said. “The films that come out, they are kind of documents of our time. And the filmmakers, most of them here are on very low budgets. They can’t afford to be high-tech, have access to high-tech, or special affects. The budgets won’t allow it. So the films become more personal. The movies that come out are more original, more hands on, and that in itself could be considered political. So, I think Sundance will always be committed to, simply, letting the voices of the filmmakers be heard, and you’ll see how much it gets political or not. It’s certainly not something that we plan.”

Redford began to speak about the creative process itself. “If you’re going to do it you’re going to do it,” he stated. “But in terms of a story for the festival, I think a lot of them are personal. You’re seeing such a personal reflection about people dealing with issues.  What do you do [with whatever vision you have?] And that I find very, very exciting because Sundance has always been more on the humanistic side of story-telling in film. And I think many are seeing more and more little bits of dark. How long can you sit here and be frustrated and despairing? That’s why we appreciate the work here. You can come here and in a sense, you have a bench mark about what’s going on in society and how the artists are trying to deal with it.”

It’s well known that Sundance is a strong supporter of the documentary format, routinely screening work from all over the world, with widely varying points of view. Redford addressed this by saying, ‘We started playing documentaries as soon it was clear the festival was going to survive. Documentaries were the first thing that started being pushed here, because I felt they weren’t getting fair treatment in the marketplace. I also believed that the documentary was evolving away from talking heads, so we started to promote them more and more, creating more spaces for them. We will probably continue to do that, creating more spaces for new forms as they come.”

Gilmore continued the thought. “There’s always a question of the nature of what Sundance is as a festival. So many of the works that come here are focused on getting distribution, and yet one of the things a colleague of mine used to say is that the films that Sundance is talking about is not necessarily the film that will get distribution.” He contnues, “Sometimes, we feel a little bit abused by the focus on the mainstream actors driving some of the work, but that’s not always the case.But there is a lot of work that comes out of Sundance which isn’t driven by that high profile actor, and that is work that is always welcome here. What’s Sundance’s role in the distribution world? That’s something we have a lot of discussion about…..”

Redford continued the conversation, “It’s to create opportunities for filmmakers, I think it’s important to know that, it’s not about the celebrity factor. When we started the Sundance Film Festival, it became a market, but it wasn’t a market to begin with. We started it to have a place for filmmakers to come and have a sense of community and see each others’ work. It started very, very small, maybe 20 films or something the first year. [But then] more artists, more people started to come.”

On the subject of high-profile actors starring in many recent Sundance films, especially those in the Premiers category, he added, “At a certain point actors are looking at a higher playing field. An actor, a good actor wants to act; he wants to play good roles. As special effects and high tech increased, and there are more and more big action films, a lot of actors rather like to take the independent roles. And when it comes to our festival, it’s the work, it’s the stories. The actors came here because, just because there are more interesting roles to play. 

Eventually, the subject of the conference turned personal, because Mr. Redford’s daughter Amy Redford, is involved in Sundance for the first time, as Producer and Director of The Guitar, based on a true story, and written by Amos Poe. When asked about how he felt about it, he responded, “Well, basically, I’m here as her dad and in support of her, as a dad. I’m happy to say that we’re all independent workers here. You’d have to ask Amy what she’s learned over the years from my work. But I’ve always encouraged the whole family to be independent. You take your own path and you follow it. That’s important. Over the years, of course, there’s been advice here and there and so forth, but I think she’s here with her own work and I’m here in support of her. It’s great. / Issue 77 - September 0903
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