Sundance: Robert Redford Makes Only a Brief Pit Stop as Fest Gets Underway

Robert Redford_Sundance - Getty - H 2019
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"This festival is more relevant in divided times than ever," said fest director John Cooper.

As the streaming companies began descending on Park City on Thursday, Sundance Film Festival organizers made the case for analog values at the mountain fest’s opening-day press conference.

“We consider how our purpose as a live event has evolved in the streaming age,” Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam said in her introductory remarks. “Stories are being distributed with an eye on views and clicks, rather than depth or risk. This leads to shallow and sensational content. The streaming and independent acquisitions markets will always be a story and will rise and fall. But this festival is about something bigger.”

The event at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street included only a brief appearance by Sundance founder Robert Redford, who departed the stage before a panel of programmers took questions from the press. “I’ve been doing this for 34 years,” he said. “I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place. I don’t think the festival needs a whole lot of introduction now.”

Putnam also spoke about Sundance’s inclusion efforts, which this year involved publishing demographic data on applicants for the first time and making a push for a broader range of critics and press to attend. At this year's event, 63 percent of the credentialed Sundance press are from under-represented groups, she said, many of whom were provided with stipends and mentors.

She also noted that two filmmakers from Muslim countries were denied visas to attend the festival: Soudade Kaadan of Syria and Arman Fayyaz of Iran.

The Sundance programmers, led by festival director John Cooper and new director of programming Kim Yutani, discussed what senior programmer David Courier called “an incredible renaissance in documentary filmmaking," with four of the five docs that earned Oscar nominations earlier this week having emerged from Sundance premieres. 

“The biggest topics of this year are the importance of journalism … the global rise of nationalism, the rise of the right,” said Courier. Asked whether two years of the Donald Trump administration had influenced the films, Courier answered, “They are fierce,” citing Knock Down the House, which focuses on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' successful primary bid to represent New York's 14th Congressional District, as well as The Brink, The Edge of Democracy, The Great Hack and Hail Satan, “which is delicious.”

Programmers also touted a new space for virtual reality programming as part of the fest’s New Frontiers section, and an emphasis on international cinema. “What is Sundance in 2019?” Cooper said. “This festival is more relevant in divided times than ever.”

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival is set to run through Feb. 3.