Sundance Festival Kicks Off With Subdued Launch, Renewed Commitment

by Luca Celada January 25, 2019
Robert Reford opens Sundance 2019

Sundance Institute President & Founder Robert Redford at the Day One Press Conference of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. © 2019 Sundance Institute.

Jemal Countess/ Sundance Institute

PARK CITY  --  It was the same room – the legendary Egyptian theater atop Main Street. The usual time and date: Opening Day Thursday at 1 pm sharp. But the vibe was subdued this year. Maybe the several empty seats contributed to the feeling, perhaps the fact that press questions had to be submitted in advance and were read by the “talent” themselves. That and the fact that Robert Redford, founder of the 34-year-old festival, who usually holds court on the Egyptian stage, this year only made a very brief appearance at the top of the press conference. The 82-year-old filmmaker thanked journalists for coming, said that the time had come to step aside from doing the honors and then left the stage to Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and the senior festival programmers. (Later Redford would take another bow at the Eccles podium to introduce Bart Freundlich’s After The Wedding, which officially opened the festival).

Putnam told the audience of assembled journos that the festival is going stronger than ever having this year received a record 14200 submissions. From these, programmers culled 119 narrative features and documentaries from the US and around the world as well as a shorts program. The festival (which Putnam reminded everyone is just one of the programs of the non profit Sundance Institute) “remains a public forum for original voices at a time when there a few” said Putnam as she reiterated Sundance’s commitment to independent voices at a time when streaming and subscription services may drive a new push towards commercial content. Part of the ethos which artistic director John Cooper later describes as passion for “films that make us better human beings.”

Programmers of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper, Programming Director Kim Yutani, Senior Programmer John Nein, Senior Programmer and New Frontier Chief Curator, Senior Programmer David Courier and Senior Programmer and Director of Sundance Catalyst Caroline Libresco at the Day One Press Conference of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Duston Todd/ Sundance Film Institute

 

Putnam also stood by the longstanding commitment to diversity of a festival whose films this year will consist of work directed by women by 47%. And the effort towards diversity extends to Institute fellows and even to the attending press corps. “63% of credentialed journalists are from underrepresented groups this year,” said Putnam, an effort, she explained, to ensure that diverse fare does not end up screened only by white male writers and critics.

As usual, programmers stressed equal time for documentaries, something that has been integral to the festival from Robert Redford’s initial conception. Sundance which probably more than any festival has fostered the form’s renaissance has now added a “Premiere Documentaries” section which Cooper explained will be devoted to film’s by established documentary masters as well as films whose subject matter are great figures. Kim Yutani, the newly minted Director of Programming, said that if there was an underlying topic in this year documentary films it was “the importance of a battered journalism in getting the truth out.”

“We don't ever program for topic but that did emerge,” said Senior Documentary programmer David Courier, adding that two years into the current political upheaval we are now starting to see films conceived, written and shot entirely in the Trump era. “It is a scary time in the world with the rise of the right embraced by our own country, really scary. You can feel filmmakers becoming incensed and speaking to that topic in a big way.”