PARK CITY, UTAH — The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris this month was “a wake-up” for people who believe in freedom of expression, Sundance founder Robert Redford says.
And they must act to safeguard those freedoms, even at the risk of offending others, the actor/director said Thursday, as he launched the 2015 edition of his Sundance Film Festival in this former silver mining town in the mountains of the Wasatch Range.
“Clearly, I think there is an attack on freedom of expression in many different places. It’s not exclusive to Paris,” said Redford, 78, answering a questioner who sought his reaction to the recent slayings of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by Muslim extremists angered by the magazine’s artistic provocations.
“That was a sad event. It was a shocking event. But I also have a hunch it was a bit of a wake-up event. What we argue (at Sundance) is that we believe in diversity, and freedom of expression is very much fundamental to us. And that’s how it is with the films.
“You’ll see a lot of films here that are going to upset other people,” Redford continued, dressed as usual in denim attire reminiscent of his Sundance Kid gunslinger character from the movies, but also sporting professorial spectacles.
“But that’s OK. It’s diversity. It’s showing what there is out there. So I think freedom of expression seems to be in danger in a lot of areas, but as far as we’re concerned, we’ll do everything in our power to keep it alive here.”
That promise will be open to the world to judge over the next 11 days. Festival director John Cooper has said this year’s Sundance will be more “intense” than usual, as it premieres both documentaries and dramas on such hot-button concerns as religious extremism, campus rape, racism, species extinction and social media abuses.
“It’s an active concept,” Cooper said, joining Redford on stage along with Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam.
“Freedom of expression is only real if you’re doing it. And that’s what we hope we’re doing here, for the next 10 days and onwards.”
Sundance regular Kirby Dick is expected to reignite the campus rape issue with The Hunting Ground, which gets its world premiere here Friday. The film includes first-person testimonies of sexual assault victims along with evidence of institutional cover-ups.
This weekend will also bring the premiere of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, an insider’s account of the controversial Scientology religion. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), the film has been condemned sight unseen by Scientology, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing it.
Other hot docs here will cover the shooting of a black youth by a white man who objected to his rap music (Marc Silver’s 3½ Minutes); the accelerating extinction of various species around the world (Louie Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction); and the potential of unchecked social media to deceive and hurt people in unforeseen ways (Sophie Deraspe’s The Amina Profile). The latter film is one of a record slate this year of Canadian films at Sundance and rival fest Slamdance.
Redford said that one reason he brought Sundance to Park City more than 30 years ago, originally showing films in just one movie house, the funky Egyptian Theatre that hosted Thursday’s press conference, was because he wanted to give filmmakers a respite from the madness of the world.
“We brought it here in the mountains because … they would be free, they would feel like there’s a safe place outside of where the action is, so to speak.”
Redford, who is also president of the fest-overseeing Sundance Institute, spoke repeatedly of the need for people and institutions to embrace change.
It’s a theme he’s returned to often in the more the three decades he’s watched Sundance grow.
I asked him if he ever gets impatient waiting for meaningful change. So many of the films of Sundance 2015 dig deep into issues that have long bedevilled humanity.
Redford admitted it can get frustrating, so much so that he resorts to meditation to cope with it.
“I think I’m an impatient person, so obviously that makes it tough,” he said.
“Since change, I think, is inevitable and it’s happening, sometimes I find myself a little bit ahead of it, wishing it were happening faster. Because I’ve felt that I could see what the result would be.
“But I can’t control that. So then what happens is, I have to go into meditation to slow myself down in terms of my expectations!
“The only good thing is, it’s going to happen … it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in its own way. Just be with it.”