The 2018 Sundance Film Festival is officially underway. In the opening press conference President and Founder Robert Redford, Executive Director Keri Putnam, and Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper spoke with Barbara Chai, head of arts and culture coverage at Dow Jones Media Group and the editor of MarketWatch Entertainment, and attending press about the a variety of issues, including the purpose and origins of the festival, the growing #MeToo and TimesUp movements, and beyond.
In the weeks leading up to Sundance, there has been much speculation about how the industry would handle coming together given the all the sexual harassment allegations swirling around. For his part, Redford is encouraged by this cultural moment saying "Change is inevitable, sometimes it's positive, sometimes it's not, but I think it's a wonderful thing that women's voices are getting stronger and being heard. For men, it's time to listen." One of the biggest practical steps the festival has taken this year is giving greater visibility to the Code of Conduct they've always had for their staff and volunteers to all festival goers (printing it on the back of all credentials) and partnering with the Utah Attorney General's Office to create a hotline anyone can call into to report any incidents. As far as the female empowerment sweeping across the industry, they are all for it. "The movement and conversation has been incredibly moving," said Putnam. "We know that it is more than just dealing with a few men, it's about looking at the underlying systems of power. What structures and assumptions are there that dictate who we value, who gets financing and distribution, what stories we tell, and who gets to tell them. In an industry as complex as our, change won't come easy, it's going to take a lot of effort, but new conversations are happening and we're not going backwards."
Redford also took the time to emphasize the power of documentaries in the wake of questions surrounding the Trump administrations hostile attacks on journalism and the media. "I'm a huge fan of journalism and it always seems to come under threat periodically," Redford said. "Journalism is about getting truth to the people and we see it being misused. Our role at the festival is to promote the proper use and the truth against the odds." In terms of combatting the "fake news," they had simple advice. "Don't support it, don't listen to it," said Cooper. "This is why we love the documentary form because it allows for a much deeper dive into a subject. The truth is exciting and you can see things in a new light." One of the films specifically called out on the matter was Our New President, a doc put together entirely using footage from Russian media and Youtube about the election.
The leaders of Sundance reaffirmed the role of the organization even in a time when media consumption is changing rapidly, the power creating an artistic community gives individual artists, and the importance of elevating marginalized voices in our globalized world. "We're really proud that this year's festival has 38 percent female directors and 32 percent directors of color," said Putnam. "Of course there's still a progress to be made, but we're proud of that diversity. Independent film defies categorization and we see artist pushing for the form following the needs of the story."
When asked if they believed film could change the world, the answer was, of course, yes. "Change comes through real people connecting to stories with real emotions," said Cooper. They pointed to the very tangible atmosphere at Sundance where they see and hear engaged audiences connecting to authentic cinema instead of the mass produced disposable media that's so readily available. So while the Sundance Institute can work as ambassadors and champions of artists, it's also up to audiences to demand a greater diversity of voices.