Robert Redford’s New Frontier
January 16, 2009
Robert Redford doesn’t want a cabinet position in the Obama administration, but he is excited about the change the president-elect represents. The 72-year-old actor expects arts and culture to reemerge at the top of the national agenda, even in tough economic times.
"Obviously the economic climate is huge," Redford explained Thursday at his annual press conference to open the Sundance Film Festival, now in its 25th year.
Redford couldn’t say how the economy would affect the festival. He did note, though, that art has survived, even thrived, during economic downturns in the past.
Not one to pass up an apt metaphor, Redford likened the filmmaker’s struggle to grass growing through the sidewalk. "We’re looking at a time that’s very screwed up, but there are also opportunities that come with that," he said.
Responding to a reporter’s question, Redford said he would decline being the secretary for arts and culture if the position were created. He’s perfectly happy promoting independent film through the institute and film festival he helped shepherd into the modern era.
Redford arrived at the Egyptian Theatre wearing a dark beret and pea coat, collar popped, with characteristically tousled hair. He and festival director Geoffrey Gilmore credited Sundance’s filmmaking labs in the Middle East and Latin America for widening the diversity of films shown at this year’s festival. Redford recalled asking novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez to bring a band of Cuban artists to the festival one year to assist in the development of a Spanish-speaking filmmakers’ lab.
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More recently, Redford worked with director Walter Salles for three years to make the film "Motorcycle Diaries," about revolutionary Che Guevara. The project took him to Havana to procure the rights to Guevara’s diary from his widow. The film won the Oscar for best original song in 2005. "There’s been a real commitment to Latin America for a long time," Redford summarized.
Sundance began in its current form in 1985 as a place for new and experimental work in independent film. Sundance’s mission hasn’t changed, but the world around the festival has changed immensely. "For me, having started this, it’s not just looking at the individual moment, but the time before and the time to come," Redford said. "For us, it’s always been the long view."
Redford did not shrug off the significance of Sundance’s longevity, but he was willing to make light of the celebration. "I keep hearing it’s our 25th anniversary," he said. "It seems like we’ve been celebrating 25 for the past three years."
Sundance’s success wasn’t a sure thing. For its first six years under Redford’s tutelage, some commentators predicted that the festival wouldn’t survive. Early on, Redford took his case to the National Endowment for the Arts and lobbied for $25,000. He got it.
In 2008, when Redford and other luminaries tried to cull more money for poetry, music and film, they weren’t so lucky. Short on cash, the federal government left many arts organizations wanting.
This year, the poor economy hasn’t hurt ticket sales which are up significantly, Gilmore insisted. "We’re weathering what’s going on in the crisis," he said.
Redford, for his part, said he wouldn’t be disappointed to see thinner crowds and less of a corporate presence at the festival this year.
Diversity has been especially important for this year’s festival. Some gays decided to boycott the festival after a same-sex marriage ban passed in California in November. Redford dismissed the complaints. "To try to target the festival seems silly to me since diversity is the name of our game," he said.
Gilmore added, "Sundance has been a platform for speaking and we’ll see what this week brings."
Sundance is about expanding the sense of what’s possible, Gilmore said, and the festival has pushed innovation in filmmaking with its New Frontier exhibit, a collection of film-related art installations on display during the festival in the basement of the Main Street Mall.
American audiences have more avenues to see films than they did 20 years ago, but Gilmore added, "No one in the independent world is unaware of the distribution bottleneck."
Redford gave special praise to documentary filmmakers who take on global human-rights issues, many of whom, he said, risk their own lives to tell stories. His advice to young filmmakers hasn’t changed in 25 years. It takes luck and bravery to make it in the movie industry.
"You’re going to have to want it more than anything else," he said.