Sundance Film Fest 2017: Redford on the Mission in Trump Era

Robert Redford said the Sundance Film Fest won’t change its mission during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Instead, the non-profit organization that puts on the event will remain committed to supporting and nurturing young artists, not in reframing itself as a voice of the opposition.

“We stay away from politics,” said Redford at the opening press conference. “We stay focused on the stories being told by artists, we don’t play advocacy.”

Trump’s inauguration takes place Friday, on the second day of this year’s festival. A protest march is planned on Saturday in Park City, Utah, but the Sundance Institute is not playing a role in organizing that event.

Still the incoming president looms large at the indie film gathering. Trump and the entertainment industry have maintained hostile relationships.

Major stars have refused to perform at his inauguration ceremony. Redford, a liberal and environmentalist, was measured in his remarks about the new president.

“Presidents come and go,” Redford said. “The pendulum swings. It swings back and forth. It always has. It always will.”

But he agreed that many Americans feel anxiety about Trump’s presidency– “feeling of a darkness closing in.” Redford sounded optimistic, despite fears that Trump will cut government programs that help the poor and crack down on immigrants. “You want to look for where the light is going to come,” Redford said.

He predicted that people who sat the election out will become politicized after social programs are eliminated. “In this current dialogue, it looks like a lot is going to be taken away from us and that will galvanizes the people,” Redford said. “I hope it will be followed by a movement.”

The opening press conference is usually an opportunity for Redford, festival director John Cooper, and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam to reflect on the impact of Sundance on promoting filmmakers.

But, as expected, this year politics dominated the discussion, the state of art house film or the rise of new distribution platforms like Netflix. Most of the questions from journalists had to do with Trump and there was a feeling of unease, even dismay over the new right wing.

Redford was joined on stage by filmmakers Sydney Freeland and David Lowery, both of whom attended the Sundance Lab and worked with the program to develop projects. They made it clear that they were looking to dramatize different kinds of stories after Trump’s upset victory.

“As a filmmaker you have a podium,” said Lowery, “Every film is political, and I think it’s important to think about things that matter to you in light of current events, and to say things that need to be said.”

Both directors believed that artists had a responsibility to reflect their times. Freeland said she wanted to “provide some sort of counter narrative.”

Reports that Trump plans to eliminate federal arts funding  cast a shadow over the press conference.

Putnam said the National Endowment for the Arts gives out a little more than $740 million in grants, an insignificant part of the federal budget.

“It feels more like a statement about the arts,” said Putnam. “I don’t think this is an issue just for filmmakers … this is a human issue. It’s about free expression and it’s about what role the arts play.”