PARK CITY, UTAH — Hollywood is about 1,100 kilometres away from this former silver mining town where, every January, independent film enthusiasts gather for Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival.
It might as well be one million miles away, as far as festival founder Redford and his crew are concerned.
At the annual opening-day press conference in Park City’s tiny but elegant Egyptian Theatre, the actor/director turned indie film mentor avoided getting drawn into the increasingly noisy debate, signified by the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, about the lack of diversity in Hollywood movies and the Academy Awards.
“I’m not into Oscars,” said Redford, 79, moving right past the issue. “I’m not into that.”
Redford was responding to a question from me, picking up on one asked earlier by press conference moderator Sean Means, movie critic for the Salt Lake Tribune. Means had asked Redford, festival director John Cooper and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam about the uproar over the all-white actor nominees for the Feb. 28 Oscars and the Academy’s pledge to change things for the future.
It was obvious that neither Redford nor any of the other Sundance people on the Egyptian stage wanted to get into the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
“We don’t personally take a position of advocacy,” Redford said, to which Putnam later added, “We’re not an advocacy organization. Our job is not to tell anyone in Hollywood what to do.”
Sundance would prefer to point out, as it rightly does, how much it has done to advance the cause not just of indie filmmaking, but of women, minorities and various other causes big and small throughout the world.
It has an impeccable record in promoting equality, diversity and inclusivity, but it does so by way of telling great stories, not by pointing fingers, said Redford, who was dressed as per the Sundance norm of casual sweater, blue jeans and cowboy boots.
“Diversity comes out of the word ‘independence,’” Redford said.
“Basically that’s the principal word that we operate from. It’s a word that I’ve operated from personally for most of my life. . .
“It’s an automatic thing if you’re independent minded — you’re going to do things different from the common form. Then you’re going to have more diverse products.”
Cooper pointed out that Sundance and its filmmakers certainly aren’t afraid to take on tough topics, especially in the documentary realm where the festival excels. There will be docs premiering here over the next 11 days that will tackle such hot-button topics as gun control, abortion and online abuse, and headlines might result from them.
The festival will also premiere a drama that seems exactly the type of film that the Academy is professing to want to include in future Oscar consideration: The Birth of a Nation, by African-American actor turned director Nate Parker, a Sundance veteran.
This first feature tells the story of Nat Turner, played by Parker, an American-born slave who in the 1800s led the most successful slave rebellion in American history. The film co-stars Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union.
“We’re still looking for new voices, we’re looking for original ways to tell stories,” Cooper said of his team’s selection process.
It’s a challenging environment right now for indie film, Redford said, as many new distractions compete for audience attention and money. But it’s always been an uphill struggle.
“The game is always changing. And as it changes, what remains is it’s always tough for film.”
Redford did an unusual thing towards the end of the press conference. He returned to the Oscars question he’d dismissed earlier, clarifying what he meant by his brisk remark, “I’m not into Oscars.”
It did seem a strange thing for him to say, considering he’s been nominated four times for an Oscar and has won twice, if you count the special Oscar he received in 2002 for his Sundance work.
He wanted to make it clear he’s not bashing Hollywood, the Oscars or mainstream movies.
“I can see the headline: ‘I don’t like Oscars,’” Redford joked.
“No! That’s for Donald Trump to say. What I mean is that I’m not focused on that part. To me it’s about the work. And whatever comes from that, whatever reward comes from that, that’s great. But I don’t think about it. Because there’s nothing more important and exciting to me than the work when you’re doing it.
“So once that work is done, I kind of back off. Whatever comes from that is fine. It’s just nothing that occupies my thinking.”
What does occupy his thinking is 11 days of invigorating Sundance fare. On with the show.