The 2019 Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday with a press conference at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.
Festival founder Robert Redford made a short cameo at the beginning of the press conference to give a brief introduction, saying now that 34 years have passed since the festival started, “I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place.
“The thing I’ve missed over the years is being able to spend time with the films and with the filmmakers and see their work and enjoy their work and be part of their community,” Redford said. I’ve been sort of spending a lot of time introducing everything, but I don’t think the festival needs a whole lot of introduction now. I think it kind of runs on its own course, and I’m happy for that.”
Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, then took the podium to introduce the festival and this year’s theme, “Risk Independence.” Putnam said the theme “speaks to artists taking a risk to reveal what’s inside them despite what others may think.”
“But while we celebrate the creative risks that artists may take, we shouldn’t forget the more serious risks that come with being truly independent. Documentarians in particular risk being jailed and even risk their lives for sharing their truths, and those numbers around the world are at an all-time high,” Putnam said. “There are also political risks. We’re featuring work from several artists who nearly didn’t get visas to travel to Sundance this year.”
Putnam said the theme also refers to the risk audiences take to “experience work that breaks convention and pushes us out of our comfort zone.”
“Here, we will discover beauty, surprise, joy, maybe even hope, but there also may be controversy, discomfort or divided opinion,” Putnam said. “That’s what should happen. Art can’t spark conversation if it’s playing it safe.”
The Sundance Film Festival is “a public square for independent voices,” according to Putnam.
“The consolidation of commercial media, the click optimization of the digital landscape, that means that stories, content and information are being distributed with an eye on views and clicks rather than depth and risk,” Putnam said. “The commercial media environment devalues independent media, and we’re here to revalue it.”
Putnam also described the festival as “a home for independent artists around the world to gather, to form a connected, creative community.”
“The fact that this year we’ve had the most submissions to the Sundance Film Festival ever, 14,200 projects, I think shows it’s an indication that this vision is thriving,” Putnam said.
The executive director also mentioned Sundance Institute’s commitment to include underrepresented groups of people, extending beyond filmmakers to those who critique their work as well.
“We realized, frankly later than we should have, the implications of the fact that the diverse community of artists here were premiering their work to mostly white male critics,” Putnam said. “This lack of inclusion has real world implications to sales, distribution and opportunity, so we decided to do something about it. We vastly reshaped who we accredited. I’m proud to announce that 63 percent of the credentialed press are from underrepresented groups this year.”
Festival director John Cooper also answered questions with a panel of programmers including Kim Yutani, John Nein, Shari Frilot, David Courier and Caroline Libresco about the programming process, festival diversity, off-screen events including New Frontier and themes among this year’s film lineup.
The panelists said though they don’t select films according to specific topics, a few prominent themes have arisen among this year’s film selections, such as the importance of journalism, rise of the right, portraits of fascinating characters that serve as windows into deeper issues and politics, much of which stems from the Trump administration’s two-year mark in office.
Cooper said the programmers’ goal is “to find the most interesting, the boldest independent voices now from around the world.”
“That’s what we do. We look for authenticity, we look for creativity, we look for originality,” Cooper said. “I think that this festival is more relevant in divided times than ever. I think the voices that come in the forefront of this festival are important. I think it helps create the cultural landscape of this year with what we witness and now we get to turn it over to our audiences, which is really exciting.”