Sundance Film Festival organizers say independent art is crucial to democracy |

Sundance Film Festival organizers say independent art is crucial to democracy

‘We need stories that challenge’ status quo, leader says

Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson speaks during an online welcome Thursday night.
Scott Iwasaki/Park Record

Sundance Film Festival 2021 is underway and Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam says she’s happy people are joining in the action — albeit virtually.

“When we realized we’d be holding the 2021 festival during a pandemic, we had a choice to make,” Putnam said during the festival’s opening night welcome that took place online Thursday at the festival’s website. “We could cancel or move the festival. We could play it safe and simply make our slate of films available online, or we could take a risk and imagine a way to recreate the energy of the full festival experience digitally. Well, we chose the riskier route, following the lead of our artists and audiences whose adventurous spirit inspire us.”

After months of planning and pivoting the festival from an in-person event to an online event, Putnam and Festival Director Tabitha Jackson gave an address by video, which was bookended with performances by Red Spirit and Rhiannon Giddens, and conveyed how important it was to find a way to host the festival during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest in the country.

“In the moment when the media landscape is more polarized and consolidated than ever, we see a lot of content that reinforces the status quo,” Putnam said. “We need stories that challenge it. We believe independent voices and art are crucial to truth and democracy.”

Putnam emphasized the Sundance Film Festival as a place where independent people gather to see new work, meet artists and engage in “dynamic conversation.”

“As much as we wish we could be together in person, this year’s festival is a chance to embrace what’s different,” she said. “This is a challenging year, which makes us that much more committed in supporting independent artists whose work deserves visibility.”

Although this year’s festival is online, Putman thanked Park City, Summit and Salt Lake counties and Utah for their ongoing support.

“We look forward to being together in Utah again in January 2022,” she said.

After Putnam’s words, Jackson appeared on the screen and introduced a recorded speech by Sundance founder Robert Redford.

“If you look up, you will see a full moon, the first moon of the new year,” Jackson said. “In this moment when we are constantly looking inwards or, perhaps, looking away, we just remember to look up at our shared sky.”

At that cue, Redford’s speech began.

“If each of us right where we are could hold our own mirror to the sky, what might we see?” he said. “If every star were a story what might be heard? If brought together, what might those perspectives reveal?”

Redford answered those rhetorical questions, and said artists hold mirrors to their own pieces of the universe.

“They make the hidden visible, the unknown familiar,” he said. “Even though we have been separated, we’re still bound together. We dream under the same sky, filled with stardust. And that same stardust formed the deserts of Utah, our festival home.”

In his voiceover on a video showing ancient Pueblo pictographs and hand prints in Southern Utah, Redford talked about how these people made their mark on the world.

“They stretched out their hands and pressed them, firm, against the cool rock,” he said. “Each handprint is unique, a poem unto itself, and yet, each is proof of an impulse, so utterly human, so universal to say, ‘I’m here.’ You are here. We are here. And we have a story to tell.”

Sundance Film Festival participants from around the country participate in an online welcoming event video Thursday night. The festival will run online through Feb. 3.
Scott Iwasaki/Park Record

After thanking Redford, Jackson told viewers that the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was conceived as a “grand experiment.”

“(It is) a response, actually, to loss — the grief of a pandemic, the uncertainty of an economic crisis, the pain, which elicited a global uprising in the face of racism and police brutality,” she said. “This loss brought new clarity — clarity around a belief in the necessity of the independent voice (and) a belief in community and our conviction that freedom of creative expression is a powerful and necessary response to repression and autocracy.”

Jackson ended her comments by saying Park City will always be home to the Sundance Film Festival, but this year the festival’s home is also living rooms, bedrooms, the phones in attendees’ hands and 28 satellite screens in 24 U.S. states and territories.

“Let us remember we are part of something bigger — a cosmos, a collective, a constellation of individual perspectives with shared values,” she said. “And we’re fighting, still, for the things we believe in.”

The Sundance Film Festival will run virtually through Wednesday, Feb. 3. For information, visit

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