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Robert Redford may not want the Sundance Film Festival to be focused on politics, but there was no avoiding it at the opening press conference where Friday’s inauguration of Donald Trump was a prevalent topic of conversation. The panel, featuring president and founder Redford, Institute executive director Keri Putnam and festival director John Cooper, featured several questions about how artists would be affected by the upcoming administration.
The event at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street had a new format this year, with Redford holding a conversation with two of the festival’s directors, Sydney Freeland (Deidra & Laney Rob a Train) and David Lowery (A Ghost Story) before the traditional panel with the fest organizers.
“Presidents come and go,” said Redford when asked about Trump’s administration. “We try to stay away from politics and we stay focused on what are the stories being told by artists.”
He added: “The idea of us being involved in politics is just not so. We stay away from that.”
But another reporter asked about the fear that many artists have when it comes to the new administration.
“In terms of what’s going on right now and a lot of people being fearful … you want to look for where the light is going to come,” said Redford. “In this current dialogue, it looks like a lot could be taken away. I think this could galvanize the people … I think there will be a movement.”
Cooper said they plan on doing what they’ve “always done” during the next administration. “We are going to stand behind our artists and support them.”
The threat to funding of the arts also came up, and the panel was asked what filmmakers can do. “I don’t think this is an issue just for filmmakers,” said Putnam. “This is a human issue … what people can do, not just artists, but all people is to speak up for what role arts bring to our culture and our lives. It’s a critical issue for all Americans.”
The panelists were asked how they would approach the new political climate as artists.
“I think I was affected by world events. For me, there are two things. One, what’s my role going to be as an actor, as an artist in the mix? And then what’s the story to be told?” said Redford.
“I was very much affected when I was doing research for All the President’s Men,” said Redford. “I saw how they worked as journalists and somehow in my head that sunk in as how I would approach filmmaking — as a journalist.”
Said Lowery: “For me, it’s something I’m still processing. I do realize as a filmmaker, you have a podium … there’s some weight to that. I think about the films I want to make in the future, and I put them in a slightly different light … every film is political.”
The flow of many tech companies including Apple, Netflix and Google into the content creation business also came up, with Cooper saying it’s been a positive change for indie film. “What I’m loving about this is the films that they’re supporting are independent films,” said Cooper.
Redford spoke about the beginning of the Sundance Labs, which Lowery and Freeland were a part of recently. “Going through the lab process was going to be like tough love. I would ask colleagues of mine who were in the business … to work with these novice filmmakers to help develop their stories,” he said, describing the labs as a bootcamp.
“At the time, we were kind of under siege by what new technology was bringing into the film business,” he said. “We decided we were going to focus on the importance of storytelling.”
Freeland, who is Native American and grew up in Utah, says the Lab opened up the world of film to her. “Filmmaking isn’t something that even exists back home,” she says. “I’m very grateful for this.”
Redford said he told his colleagues, who were volunteer mentors: “Look, we all started somewhere. We’ve had this experience when we just started out. Don’t you want to give something back?”
The 2017 Sundance Film Festival takes place Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah.
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