Sundance, Day 1: “We’re Past Harvey. We’re on to Change.”

Sundance 2018 kicks off beneath an enormous cloud in the shape of Harvey Weinstein, resting on the peaks above Park City. In its oozing depths, one can discern a number of other men’s faces with histories of success at Sundance as well as new-found shame in the wake of Weinstein’s fall and the rising power of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. (Et tu, James Franco?) The festival—which featured a first Saturday Women’s March last year, attended by Weinstein—has never been immune to the behavior being called out now, and was notably the site of a 1997 incident, at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, involving Weinstein and actress Rose McGowan. More recently, during the 2015 festival, Emile Hirsch assaulted a female Paramount executive at a Park City club (leading to 15 days in jail and rehab for the actor), and Nate Parker, darling of the 2016 fest with his first feature The Birth of a Nation—which hinged on the rape of a character played by Gabrielle Union, a victim of rape herself—saw his breakout flounder beneath revelations of his involvement in a sexual assault case during his college days.

But now the energy of that 2017 march—inspired by the election of a man who privately trumpeted his own history and methods of assault—is rising even higher here in a tide of projects on this year’s slate by and about women, including profiles (all directed by women) of Gloria Allred, Jane Fonda, artist Yayoi Kusama, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be in attendance at the Park City premiere of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG on Sunday. Salt Lake City veterans of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Kristen Ries and her partner Maggie Snyder, are the subject of Jenny Mackenzie’s Quiet Heroes (premiering at Rose Wagner Theater in SLC, also on Sunday), and Amy Adrion’s debut documentary Half the Picture investigates Hollywood’s persistent sexism, particularly with respect to female directors. Meanwhile, strong leading roles for women abound. Chloë Sevigny (Lizzie), Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Kindergarten Teacher), Laura Dern (The Tale), Keira Knightly (Collette), and Daisy Ridley (Ophelia) will be the best known of the actresses, but there are plenty more artists to discover in every category of the program.

Still, no surprise that just two questions into the 2018 Day One Press Conference, moderator Barbara Chai addressed the proverbial elephant, which predominated as a subject throughout the hour, along with persistent issues of diversity in Hollywood, and the protection of truth in our era of so-called “fake news.” The most direct actions Sundance has taken to counteract the industry’s culture of harassment are the institution of a 24-hour hotline (801-834-1944) where attendees can report incidents during the festival, and making the festival’s code of conduct more visible for all guests. When pressed by a question about Sundance’s possible, if unwitting, facilitation of behavior like Weinstein’s, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam was adamant that she and her colleagues “were sickened” by the news of the producer’s transgressions, that “Sundance, as an institution, never contributed to that behavior,” and that it was “nothing we were aware of at the time.”

Perhaps because of her position working with the Institute’s future filmmakers, Putnam, even more than last year, was the most eloquent, and the most vocal, of the panelists regarding Sundance’s role in creating opportunities for artists to use their work and their community to address systemic changes in the industry and in our culture, noting research and creative and career-oriented initiatives to assist women and other underrepresented storytellers as they navigate challenges of “who gets financing, who gets distribution, who gets to tell the stories, and what stories do we tell.”

“Change is inevitable,” festival founder Robert Redford said. “Change is going to come.”

But while noting positive developments in the festival’s demographics (38% of this year’s directors are women, 32% are directors of color), Putnam nevertheless acknowledged that the shifts the panelists hoped to see and to facilitate would not be easy and that there was more work to do, including on the part of audiences, who she suggested have a role to play in demanding more diverse offerings in their local cinemas.

As always, Redford framed the festival and the institute as platforms for starting alternative discussions. Once the work has been fostered, made, and exhibited, carrying the conversation forward is up to us.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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