Christine Westwood

The Sundance Institute has hosted a film festival since 1985 to showcase independent films. The 2017 slate has 66 films selected for U.S. Competition, World Competition and NEXT, as well as a schedule of environmentally focused movies under the Festival’s New Climate program.

Australia is represented at the festival by Berlin Syndrome, written and directed by Cate Shortland and starring Theresa Palmer [the film’s first screening was cut short due to a technicality], Kitty Green’s US co-pro, recently Netflix acquired Casting JonBenetRed Dog 2: True Blue, Damien Power’s Killing Ground, which recently sold to IFC Midnight for US distribution, the short film Slapper, and a VR artwork by Shaun Gladwell. Australian actors also show up in US and co-productions, including Cate Blanchett (Manifesto), Toni Collette (Yellow Birds) and Emily Browning (Golden Exits), and Australian directors working on US productions such as Alethea Jones making her feature debut with the comedy Fun Mom Dinner also starring Toni Collette.

At the opening press conference, Redford was joined on stage by Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Festival Director John Cooper. The conference occurred the day before the inauguration of America’s new president so the Q&A naturally turned to politics.

“The idea is that presidents come and go,” Redford commented. “The pendulum swings back and forth, it always has and probably always will. So we try to stay away from politics per se and stay focused on what are the stories being told by artists. That’s our main drive. If politics comes up in the stories… so be it. But we don’t play advocacy. We’re just here to support the stories being told. We do not take a position.”

Cooper added: “What independent film does is show much more of the human side of who we are and what we are. It’s where we go to get stories about other people and other issues from a different angle. So it’s important we stand behind our artists and just follow them and support them.”

“It’s time for us to celebrate and affirm some of the founding values of Sundance,” Putnam said. “It includes the power of art and artists to propel us forward as a society, but also free expression, the importance of all voices, the idea that diverse voices make a difference.”

Redford went on to emphasise his abiding and continued support for documentaries.

“Documentaries have become more and more important as the news media world has shrunk into more sound bites. Everything is so clipped and short, it gives you no time to digest, no time to contemplate, it’s already moving on to the next event. Documentaries are becoming more important because it becomes like long form journalism and has a chance to really tell the story.

“I was very much affected when doing research for All the President’s Men,” Redford continues. “I spent a lot of time with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I was able to travel with them as they were still doing their work before the hearings and before the book. I saw how they worked and what their approach was as journalists, and somehow that sunk in and I thought, ‘I’m going to approach filmmaking as a journalist, telling a story.’

“What is the story and, as a journalist, how you really dig in and dig deep? Those two things really affected me as a filmmaker.”

Redford spoke of a later and less welcome revelation related to the film.

“I was asked to do a revisit to All the President’s Men and when I was looking at some archival footage I saw something that really stunned me. That was when they had hearings about the investigation against Nixon, what I saw was that the panel was made up precisely of both sides, democrats and republicans all acting as one, trying to get to the truth and that hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, ‘so there was a time when the two sides did work together.’ That’s what makes you depressed about today.”

To a question about providers like Google, Netflix and Amazon getting into the content side and how that was changing independent film, Cooper pointed out that a lot of independent films are being made because of those providers. “They are actually into the stories like we are, so we’re actually finding like-minded people.”

“It’s a great extra set of possibilities for filmmakers,” adds Putnam. “The global reach and the possibility of being in front of audiences everywhere is both incredibly exciting but also challenging from a marketing strategy. How do you get your work recognised on one of those platforms? That’s a conversation a lot of artists are thinking about.”

Redford ended the conference with a comment about the personal satisfaction he gains from the festival.

“Putting aside the excitement and value of seeing people coming, because at the very beginning in 1985 we weren’t sure that anyone was going to come, I think seeing our initial idea of giving an opportunity to a new artist to tell their stories, and we created that.”

Sundance Film Festival runs January 19 – 29, 2017


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