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Sundance Under Trump? Robert Redford Says ‘We Stay Away From Politics’

Variety logo Variety 1/20/2017 Brent Lang
© Provided by Variety

Robert Redford said the Sundance Film Festival won’t change its mission during the presidency of Donald Trump. Instead, the non-profit organization that puts on the gathering 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 at this year’s film festival. “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 a hostile posture against one another. Major stars have refused to perform at his inauguration ceremony and Trump has lashed out on Twitter at actors and performers like Meryl Streep for criticizing him. For his part, Redford, an avowed liberal and environmentalist, was measured in his remarks on the new Oval Office occupant.

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

He acknowledged however that many Americans feel a sense of anxiety about Trump’s elevation to the White House. That there is, as he put it, a “feeling of a darkness closing in.” Redford sounded an optimistic note, despite the fears that Trump will cut government programs that help the poor and will 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 and I think it will be followed by a movement.”

The opening press conference tends to be a celebratory affair. It’s usually an opportunity for Redford and colleagues like festival director John Cooper and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam to reflect on the enormous impact that Sundance has had in promoting filmmakers and in providing a forum for lovers of indie cinema. Yet politics dominated the discussion, providing few opportunities to gas on about the state of art house film or the rise of new distribution platforms like Netflix. Most of the questions from journalists in the audience had to do with Trump and there was a palpable feeling of unease, even dismay over the United States’ rightward lurch.

Redford was joined on stage at various points 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 in the wake of Trump’s upset victory.

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

Both directors said they weren’t interested in being didactic. But they 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 also 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.”

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