Diversity and Independence in Focus As Sundance 2016 Begins

by Ana Maria Bahiana January 21, 2016

President of the Sundance Institute Robert Redford, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Sundance Festival director John Cooper at the opening of the 32nd Sundance Film Festival.

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The 32nd Sundance Film Festival kicked off today in Park City, Utah, with the traditional press conference headlined by festival creator/mentor/ president of the Sundance Institute Robert Redford. With Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Sundance Festival director John Cooper also in attendance, the annual press conference has become a kind of state of the independent cinema assessment.

This year, however, the controversy surrounding the lack of African American actors in the Academy Awards nominations – for the second year in a row – took center stage at the press conference. Asked for his take on the matter Redford brushed it aside at first, saying: “I’m not into Oscars. I’m not into that.” A few moments later he clarified his stance: “I see the headline: ‘I don’t like the Oscars’. That’s for Donald Trump to say. What I mean is I’m not focused on that part. For me, it’s about the work.”

Nevertheless the topic would not go away, and Redford finally addressed the issue by looking at the big picture: “Diversity comes out of the word independence. It’s a word I operated from principally for most of my life. Diversity comes out of it. It’s an automatic thing. If you’re independent minded, you’re going to do things different than the common form; that’s something we’re genuinely proud of—how we show diversity because it’s tied to the fundamental word of independent.”

Independence, though, is a tough proposition in these times, Redford added. “Independent film is not in a good place … it survives because it has value, but it’s always been tough. It’s tough for films in general. Financing has always been hard. There are threats to distribution. You’ve got streaming. You’ve got online. You’ve got Netflix.”

With 14 sections and dozens of panels and special events, Sundance 2016 is in the perfect position to take on these challenges and, once again, kickstart careers and launch conversations around themes, ideas and esthetics. In 2014 Sundance catapulted the Whiplash team – writer/director Damien Chazelle, actors Miles Teller and Golden Golden winner J. K. Simmons - to the forefront. The same happened last year to director John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which earned star Saoirse Ronan a Golden Globe nomination, among many other accolades.

The 2016 vintage offers a variety of promising titles, from first-time director Nate Parker’s period drama The Birth of a Nation (about a slave rebellion in 1831’s South) to the James-Franco produced Goat, about the cruel rituals of frat pledges, and starring Nick Jonas. Redford has a special place in his heart for documentaries, of which Sundance has always been a rich purveyor of titles and talent. “On a personal level, I’ve always been a huge fan of documentaries,” Redford said. “I want (the festival) to serve as a platform to elevate docs and see they are much closer to narrative films.”

The HFPA has a long relationship with both the Sundance Institute and the Festival, supporting their activities throughout the years with grants. According to Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam “the HFPA and Sundance share an alignment about the importance of developing creative culture and film culture and celebrating exciting voices. It’s been incredibly important to us that the HFPA has chosen to support our work in international feature films because … we love finding and supporting international artists whose work we believe in.”

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Ana Maria Bahiana