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Sundance Film Festival Invites Controversy in 2017

Festival Launches Amidst Concerns about Freedom, Truth, Equity and the Environment

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival opens today with healthy dose of snow and unease. One day before the inauguration of a Twitter-obsessed reality television star and real estate tycoon with an already dismal approval rating, the festival is bound to be more deeply awash in politics than last.

At the 2016 opening presser, some were looking to Sundance to respond to the controversy over #oscarssowhite, but founder Robert Redford deferred, arguing that the institute and festival’s purpose has always been to shine a light on issues that were important to filmmakers, not direct advocacy. That festival did, ultimately, introduce us to Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which won the Grand Jury and Audience awards, and landed a record-breaking distribution deal with Fox Searchlight just before its Salt Lake premiere. While it floundered and sank in the wake of revelations about Parker’s past, hopes of diversifying the Hollywood award season remain high with strong contenders, including Moonlight, Loving, and Fences.

This year’s Sundance features a late addition about the improbable rise of Donald Trump and the New Climate category, highlighting documentaries about a variety of environmental issues. And on Saturday, hundreds of attendees, including Chelsea Handler and festival director John Cooper, will take part in a Women’s March on Main.

Still, Redford, Cooper, and Sundance Institute Director Keri Putnam held the line on the primacy of storytelling over activism as they answered an opening question about a possible new role for Sundance during what many described as dark days ahead.

Putnam took the lead, saying that Sundance would continue to affirm the values it has always stood for: free expression and equality in the service of story. Development in Park City and the Wasatch Front’s air pollution were also invoked as opportunities for Sundance to intervene on behalf of not just the stories it’s facilitated, but what have been fundamental issues for Redford for decades.

Responses to these questions were relatively mild. But Putnam again spoke most directly when concerns were raised about the new administration targeting federal funding for the arts, which would directly affect the festival and independent filmmakers. This is, she said, “a human issue,” providing an opportunity for all people to speak up for free expression and the role of art in our society. Redford had underlined the importance of such funding for Sundance in an earlier Q & A with Institute alums Sydney Freeland (Deidra & Laynie Rob a Train) and David Lowery (The Yellow Birds, Ghost Story), noting that the Institute had gotten its start in 1981 with a $25,000 grant from the NEA and the goodwill and free services of industry friends.

Lance Grey, Rachel Crow, Ashleigh Murray and David Sullivan appear in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train by Sydney Freeland, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Fred Hayes.

Tye Sheridan and Alden Ehrenreich appear in The Yellow Birds by Alexandre Moors, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

If politics remains a matter for the storytellers, Sundance’s filmmakers deliver again this year with highly anticipated documentaries—a genre Redford likened to long-form journalism, supplementing or supplanting an increasingly diminished news media–including Whose Streets (premiering tonight in Park City) about the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri; The Force, tracking the troubled police department in Oakland, California; and a sequel to Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

Whatever response or resistance these and the many other civic-minded films on the slate may be able to inspire—audiences and filmmakers seeking hope in stories may begin to find some in Lowery’s reminder that “every film is political” in its own way, and in Freeland’s commitment to making work with authenticity and truth.

Written by: Michael Meija

Photos provided by sundance.org

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