Four years ago, President Barack Obama took the oath of office on the fifth day of the Sundance Film Festival. To mark the occasion, most dealmakers halted negotiations for a few hours and happily tuned in for the inauguration ceremony, while the Producers Guild even hosted a viewing-party breakfast on Main Street. At the same time, such ardent Obama supporters as Harvey Weinstein and Jake Gyllenhaal wrapped business early in order to hop a flight from Park City to Washington, D.C., to cheer on POTUS in person.
This year, a different type of logistical conflict looms: How will Sundance’s famously liberal and outspoken crowd mark the occasion when Donald Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20, the second day of the country’s most influential independent film festival?
With an especially political festival lineup revealed in early December, longtime Sundance-goers are setting their plans. Producer Jim Stern of Endgame Entertainment (Looper, Snowden), a fest regular for decades, has perhaps the most unique itinerary this year. He’ll make a reverse trek from D.C. to Park City because he quietly has been shooting a documentary about Trump supporters for the past six months. Stern will capture footage at the inauguration — the ultimate denouement for fans of the reality TV star turned politician — before heading to Sundance for the premiere of the sci-fi drama The Discovery, which Stern financed and produced (festival founder Robert Redford stars alongside Jason Segel and Rooney Mara).
“It is an unusual and singular confluence of events that has this president-elect heading into an inauguration at the same time when the festival, which so embraces diversity and other cultures, is celebrating its raison d’etre,” says Stern, an active Democrat (his brother, Todd Stern, was a chief architect of Obama’s international climate-change strategy). “I will hopefully be in both places.” Stern’s doc is neither a portrait of the so-called “deplorables” of Trump Nation nor a celebration of them. Instead, it’s Stern’s voyage into a world he rarely navigates, akin to Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys With George, which chronicles her time on the George W. Bush 2000 campaign trail.
Another documentary director, Sundance regular Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), is skipping the festival this year in order to participate in the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21 in protest of the soon-to-be president. “My husband’s company has six films in the festival this year,” she says of her spouse, Dan Cogan, executive director at Impact Partners. “While he was disappointed I wasn’t going to be there to celebrate [his slate], he understood [and] supported the decision.”
Still, many who will be on hand in Park City are discussing what type of anti-Trump events should take place. The Sundance Institute says the festival is not planning an official march but will help spearhead one if there is demand. Says a rep for the Sundance Institute, “As an arts organization that supports freedom of speech and empowering the individual voice, we always look to create a safe space for artists and will facilitate requests from outside groups that want to host demonstrations at our 2017 Festival by connecting them with the city of Park City, Utah to organize.”
In addition, the festival lineup is chock-full of unmistakable Trump shoutouts, most notably the creation of a New Climate lineup of 12 films and VR projects (the first time the festival has dedicated programming to a specific theme). The roster of films also offers a counterpoint to several controversial positions voiced by Trump along the presidential campaign trail — from Mexican immigrants (Miguel Arteta’s competition feature Beatriz at Dinner) to ISIS (City of Ghosts, a doc from Cartel Land helmer Matthew Heineman) to Syria (docs Last Men in Aleppo, Cries From Syria) to race relations (docs The Force and Whose Streets? and the series Shots Fired).
Festival director John Cooper tells THR the decision to push on the environmental-preservation front this year is both a response to the problem itself and those who downplay the issue (Trump has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China).
“Over the last couple of years, we saw a lack of environmental films being made, and these are topics affecting us all,” he says. “This is one of Robert Redford’s personal fights. We got a lot of films this year [tackling the issue], and it all worked out. When people are questioning, ‘Is it real?,’ we have plenty of examples that tell the story in complete and complex ways.”
When Lincoln Film Center executive director Lesli Klainberg realized that Trump’s inauguration date aligned with the festival, she posted on Facebook to ask her community of indie film associates if anything was planned to mark the occasion. “Some folks have replied that there are several things ‘planned,’ but I am not sure yet what they may be,” she says.
Virgil Williams, who co-wrote with director Dee Rees the buzzed-about post-World War II Southern drama Mudbound, which is premiering at Sundance, says he didn’t realize the inauguration coincided with the festival (“I’m in denial”). He says the film — which is based on a novel by a white woman (Hillary Jordan), adapted by a black Latino man (Williams), directed by a black woman (Dee Rees) and primarily shot on what used to be a slave plantation — is an antidote to some of the campaign rhetoric. “Our film is pure Americana — the best of it and the worst of it,” he says. “And now that groups like the KKK and ‘alt-right’ — the well-dressed KKK — are making headlines, this story is more poignant and relevant than ever,” he says.
Williams plans “to be very reflective” during the inauguration. “I am bringing my 10-year-old daughter to the premiere so that she can see firsthand not only the movie but also the power of tenacity and hard work,” he says. “And with our new president, it’s important that little girls know just how powerful they are.”
Likewise, The Discovery director Charlie McDowell, son of Malcolm McDowell and Hillary Clinton pal Mary Steenburgen, says he will not let the day go unnoticed. “The inauguration is definitely on my mind,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about what I can say or do.”
So while there is nothing concrete in place yet, it’s safe to say a Park City resistance is being arranged.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.