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Art and politics at Sundance 2017

Robert Redford said times have changed, but Sundance does not "play advocacy." Photo: Associated Press

Robert Redford said times have changed, but Sundance does not "play advocacy." Photo: Associated Press

The new relationship between the independent film world and the incoming White House was the central topic of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's opening day press conference. Robert Redford, founder of the 33-year-old event, repeatedly said Sundance does not "play advocacy" in political debates, focusing rather on promoting the careers of independent filmmakers. 

Nevertheless, as he shared the stage in the historic Egyptian Theater with Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper, it was clear that Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday, the second day of the 10-day festival, put the government's connection to the industry in sharp focus. 

Redford said that researching, producing and starring in "All the President's Men" inspired a sense that today's partisanship has increased to a level unknown during Richard Nixon's troubled administration.

"It was a realization that made me sad, about something being lost that had to do with our country," he said. "Time has gone by and things have gone downhill since then. Revisiting the film made him think "maybe it should be looked at like a museum piece, something that happened once upon a time. Looking at archival footage from the period of Nixon's impeachment investigation, "I saw archival footage of something that really stunned me. That was, when they had the hearings," the panel of senators "grilling" witnesses with tough questioning "was made up precisely of both sides, both Democrats and Republicans, all acting as one, trying to get to the truth."

"And that hit me like a ton of bricks. I said, 'There was a time when two sides did work together." That's what makes you depressed about today."

Sundance, which beyond the iconic festival mentors new filmmakers in the craft, has produced the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, and championed important documentary journalism like "Blackfish," "Weiner," and "The Cove." It has had a significant impact on national culture, broadening the mainstream film industry. 

Redford noted that it all began with a $25,000 seed money grant to found the nonprofit educational Sundance Lab from the National Endowment for the Arts. Such official support and funding for excellent creative projects may be broadly curtailed in the new federal budget, the speakers suggested. Putnam noted that the national arts budget is a miniscule fraction of a single percent.

"As a filmmaker you do have a podium," said panelist David Lowery, a Sundance alum who recently directed the Disney remake of "Pete's Dragon." "I don't want to turn it into a soapbox and shout from it. But I do understand that the things I say matter and will be heard and there is some weight to that. Every film is political. I think it's important to think about things that matter to you in light of current events any just make sure you're saying something that's worth saying."

The proper "response to this current climate is to find films that ring true and have some kind of authenticity to it to provide some kind of counter-narrative," said Sydney Freeland, a fellow of Sundance Institute's Native Lab for emerging Native American filmmakers. "I'm still processing myself" how to evaluate the kinds of choices she will have to make going forward as an artist.

"Presidents come and go. The pendulum swings back and forth," Redford said. "So we don’t occupy ourselves with politics. We stay focused on what are the stories being told by artists. If politics comes up in the stories filmmakers are telling, so be it. But we don't play advocacy. The idea of us being involved in politics is just not so. If politics come up in their stores, that's fine. But we do not take a position.”

That said, Sundance 2017 does feature subjects sure to trigger ideological debate. 

Redford's lifelong interest in nature has added a new programming focus to this year's festival. The New Climate program showcases 14 documentary features examining issues ranging from polar ice melts to ecological farming practices. And the venerable Documentary Premieres collection kicks off with "An Inconvenient Sequel," Al Gore's follow up to "An Inconvenient Truth," pursuing his effort to bring the increasing perils of climate change into meaningful public debate. Among the films following in the nonfiction section are "Legion of Brothers," about the secret U.S. military missions in Afghanistan immediately after September 11 and the seemingly limitless war that followed, and "Oklahoma City," about the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history. Before his 1995 bombing of the downtown federal building, he was a patriotic soldier; after his service he viewed government as a menace to be destroyed. The festival guidebook calls his transformation "A vital and hunting question whose exploration has never been more relevant...a cultural warning when sentiments of anti-government despondency walk tall with us today."

Sundance gets a frosty Minnesota hello from "Wilson "

Frosty the Snowman has a very shiny nose in the Sundance poster for "Wilson." Photo: Colin Covert

Frosty the Snowman has a very shiny nose in the Sundance poster for "Wilson." Photo: Colin Covert

The Woody Harrelson family dysfunction comedy "Wilson" was shot in the Twin Cities in the balmy summer of 2015. 
So why does the new promotional poster for it that's popping up all across Park City during the Sundance Film Festival look like a snowboard parody of Minnesota nice?
I hope to have the answer after I attend the debut. Stay tuned.

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