By Christine Westwood

Film journalists from around the world lined up from noon on Park City’s snow covered streets to take their places for the opening press conference at the Sundance festival’s oldest cinema, the Egyptian theatre.

The festival is regarded as the most influential independent film festival in the world with a reputation for launching innovative stories from original filmmakers, many of them first time writer/directors. Films like Little Miss Sunshine, Whiplash, Reservoir Dogs, An Inconvenient Truth and Beasts of the Southern Wild were first shown at Sundance, some being nurtured in the Sundance Institute writing and directing labs that are the backbone of the Institute’s creative manifesto.

This year’s conference was hosted by film critic Sean Means, talking to the Institute Executive director Keri Putnam, Festival Director John Cooper and of course the Festival founder, Robert Redford.

Competition to be selected is fierce. For 2016, 12,793 films were submitted from 120 countries, with around 200 features, documentaries and shorts making the final program. Cooper spoke about the criteria for such rigorous selection.

“The funny thing, the criteria really hasn’t changed. We’re still looking for new voices, we’re still looking for original ways to tell a story. That’s what’s always driven us.”

Commenting on the types of issues in the films submitted, Cooper adds, “A few years ago it was all about the financial crisis, now it’s things like guns in America, abortion legalities, but there are a lot of documentaries that aren’t issue driven too. What we’ve really noticed is the changing face of documentaries, the use of animation, clever re-enactments, even the graphics they are using to tell the stories are built to be more engaging to the audience. The documentary filmmakers are definitely thinking theatrically, how to grab audiences and bring them in.”

Documentaries are Redford’s particular passion and have always been strongly represented at Sundance. This year’s U.S. documentaries include accounts of the life and work of Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa, Richard Linklater, Maya Angelou, Jt Leroy and Anthony Weiner. International documentaries are described in the program as being made ‘by some of the most courageous and extraordinary international filmmakers working today.’ From Iraq is Bachman Ghobadi’s A Flag Without A Country, about an inspiring singer and a pilot against the backdrop of war and ISIS attacks in Kurdistan. The Land of the Enlightened from Belgian director Pieter-Jan De Pue, is about child workers in a mine in Afghanistan, while Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland) follows the artistic obsession of Cai Guo-Qiang in Skyladder.

Across the categories, Australian films missed out this year, though one notable New Zealand feature was selected. Writer, director, actor and artist Taika Waititi (pictured) is known for the visually original and heartfelt Boy and hilarious mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. His latest, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, is based on the book by Barry Crump and features Sam Neill as the uncle of rebellious young Ricky.

When asked by FilmInk how he had received the news of his film being accepted, Waititi said, “It was great for the film, but bad for me, as I had to finish it!”

Joking aside, the multi-award winning filmmaker has high hopes Wilderpeople will find an appreciative audience at the festival.

“It is truly a story of survival,” he explains. “There are hunts and man hunters, with a good old car chase thrown in for good measure. I hope people have a great laugh and enjoy the kinship these odd fellows find in the mystical New Zealand bush.”

Wilderpeople screens in the non-competition Premiere category along with a rich slate of original films that includes Captain Fantastic about a father, played by Viggo Mortensen, who raises his kids in strict isolation and is then forced to integrate into society, and Kelly Reichhardt’s (Meek’s Crossing) Certain Women starring Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams.

Feature films in competition include Meera Menon’s Equity, about a female investment banker; Goat, with Nick Jonas (directed by Andrew Neel) playing one of a group of young men involved in terrifying initiation rites, and Irish co-production Mammal, written and directed by Rebecca Daly (The Other Side Of Sleep) starring Rachel Griffiths as a divorcee who takes in a homeless youth from the streets of Dublin.

Redford wouldn’t be drawn into the current debate on the Oscar Academy’s lack of diversity (Spike Lee for instance has spoken of boycotting the awards) but he stressed how showcasing different voices is at the heart of the festival.

“Diversity comes out of independence and that’s what Sundance operates from,” he stated. “It’s the place where I’ve operated from personally for most of my life. If you’re independent minded you’re going to do things different from the common form. That’s something we’re pretty proud of, how we show diversity, we have these issues that come up, we don’t bring them up, we just put a spotlight on the artists who raise them. These are issues that are on the public mind. We don’t personally take a position of advocacy in that sense but we provide a spotlight.”

He adds, “I’m not against the mainstream so this independent film idea was not meant to be like insurgents coming from the mountains to attack the mainstream. It was meant to broaden the category to a fuller picture so audiences have more options, more choices to make.”

While the heart of Sundance is the film program, the Festival also showcases panel discussions, a Music cafe, including performances this year from John Legend and, and the cutting edge fusion of film and technology that is New Frontier.

When asked about the seeming conflict between new digital platforms and the traditional cinema viewing experience, Redford says, “The way you can view movies is getting smaller, like the size of your palm but I guess I’m old fashioned enough to believe it will always be important for people to go into a movie house in the dark, collectively with each other, and see a movie on a big screen. You can’t replace the value of gathering in a community space.”

Redford also had some advice for young filmmakers, with a reminder of what the core of Sundance has always been – storytelling.

“I’m not sure film schools are the answer as much as getting out in the world and seeing what’s going on by firsthand experience. You can’t go from school to school, then film school, then make a movie. You’re going to be relying on the effects of that filmmaker you saw. To me, what’s more important if you want to tell a story and you want to own the story you’re telling, get out in the world, make an adventure for yourself, hit the road and have some real life experience. That’s going to feed your mind. Then you’ll come back and find you want to talk about that experience.”


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