POLLYWOOD | Let's Sundance
AFTER 25 YEARS THE SUNDANCE KID’S FILM FEST AND INSTITUTE HAVE NEVER LOOKED SO GOOD
BY SOROUSH RICHARD SHEHABI AND NANCY REYNOLDS BAGLEY
As the film promises, “If you build it, they will come,” and no one seems to know that better than Robert Redford, who, 25 years ago, dreamed of creating an environment where independent artists could develop and showcase their films without the traditional Hollywood barriers.
Neither wind, blizzard, nor avalanche could keep a sizeable group of prominent Washingtonians from jetting to Park City, Utah, to view and discuss some of the 193 full-length films, shorts, documentaries and panels. Notables included former PBS President and Sundance Trustee Pat Mitchell, Reps. Rahm Emmanuel, Cynthia McKinney and Harold Ford, MPAA President Dan and Rhoda Glickman, Catherine and Wayne Reynolds, Douglas Smith, Gabriela Moreno, Center for American Progress founder John Podesta along with fellow CAPers Laura Nichols and Anna Soellner, Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, Jody Arlington (who was tasked with managing press for the 25th Anniversary). Nick Maduros of Quinn Gillespie, Maggie Cole, David Leavy and Patricia Finneran from Discovery and SIVLERDOCS, Lawrence O’Donnell, Franck Cordes, Cid Szegedy, Hamid Kazemi, Neil Glickfield and Kimball Stroud, among many others. This year’s Sundance Festival was a testament to Redford’s vision and the success of the Institute over the past quarter century, with over 50,000 gathering for ten days of films, parties, music, skiing and panels that embody creative risk-taking, diversity and aesthetic innovation. The festival, on of the many programs the Institute offers year-round in film, music and theater at the labs, has become one of the most important independent film festival in the world.
TO PROVIDE YOU WITH A MORE COMPLETE PICTURE WASHINGTON LIFE ASKED FRIEND AND MEMBERS OF OUR COMUNITY TO WRITE ABOUT THEIR SUNDANCE EXPERIENCE
WL wasn’t surprised to see so many friends f rom “Pollywood” given that Washington continues to grow into Documentary Central–a.k.a. “Docuwood”– and is thriving as the nation’s third largest film production market. This year, former and current Washingtonians in Park City associated with films included former Vice President Al Gore and director Davis Guggenheim for “An Inconvenient Truth” which was quickly snapped up by Paramount Pictures and will be released on May 26; Rep. Cynthia McKinney featured in “American Blackout,” writer Christopher Buckley for the film adaptation of his book “Thank you for Smoking;” Philip Chidel for his dramatic narrative “Subject Two;” Maria Maggenti for directing “Puccini for Beginners;” and Christopher Quinn for “God Grew Tired of Us,” a brilliant film about three charming displaced Sudanese young men adapting to their new life in America, which won both the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.
“Iraq in Fragments” a non-political triptych that provides beautifully shot portraits of young Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Iraqis in the aftermath of the war won three awards for documentary directing, editing and excellence in cinematography and was one of our favorites. On the dramatic side Robert Downey, Jr. provided a searing portrayal of the life of Dito Montiel, the writer of “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” who won the dramatic directing award for his self-portrait of life in Spanish Harlem. The film also won an award for Best Ensemble Cast. On the international documentary side, director Yonghi Yang won the Documentary Special Jury Prize for “Dear Pyongyang” which provides westerners with a rare glimpse inside North Korea by chronicling the relationship between a Korean father and his Japanese-born daughter, telling a riveting story of devotion to a unified, communist Korea.
Washington Life asked friends and members of our community to write about their Sundance experience at the festival panels, presentations and films. We are privileged to have Robert Redford take us into the heart and soul of the festival with a piece on what motivated him to create the Institute as well as a Q & A interview with him on documentaries. Pat Mitchell provides a unique perspective as a long standing trustee of the Sundance Institute and tells you how to get involved. Fellow trustee and star Glenn Close, who is also a creative advisor for the Institute’s developmental labs, shares her thoughts on Redford’s vision for the years ahead. Christiane Amanpour of CNN sends us a dispatch about hauling across the Atlantic for her first Sundance experience and reports on a panel moderated by Mitchell, featuring eBay and Participant Productions founder Jeff Skoll, Dan Glickman, Redford and other notables. John Podesta takes us inside the panel he moderated entitled “Where is the Media?” with “Syriana” writer and director Stephen Gaghan, NPR’s Farai Chideya, blogger Eric Alterman, Todd Purdam of Vanity Fair and Matt Cooper of Time. Other contributors including Rhoda Glickman, Patricia Finneran, Sarah Ingersoll, Annie Sollner, Renee and Max Drake as well as our own WL team provide reviews of many of the features, documentary and short films that were screened.
To view trailers of some of these films go to www.WashingtonLife.com and sign up for the free digital edition which provides links to the trailers as well as over 50 shorts. At 25, Sundance has never looked this good.
My years with Sundance and the man who made it great, Robert Redford
BY PAT MITCHELL
My relationship with Sundance began more than a decade ago. I’ll never forget my first impression….of the place and of the Sundance Kid himself. It was January, right before the festival. I came to convince Robert Redford to work with me on a documentary series on the history of Native Americans.
When I finally reached the Sundance resort at the tip of Provo Canyon, driving in the middle of a snow storm, I was stunned by the beauty of the place and by the presence and passion of the man who had quite literally designed and built it, and who had made it the home of the Sundance Institute. By the end of our walk along the river…. yes, there is a real and natural river that runs from Mt. Timpanagos through the groupings of cottages and mountain homes… I had convinced him to work with me on the series and he had invited me to join the Institute’s board. Sundance is now a big part of my life.
Sundance, the place, was a rundown sheep farm about to be taken over by developers planning to build condos and shopping centers. Redford bought it and created a natural preserve where only a small footprint of 60 or so cottages and two dozen homes cluster around a magnificent mountain range, awesome ski runs, two restaurants, a screening room, a couple of buildings that function as ‘studios’ for film directors, mentoring spaces for writers and actors and editing and composing suites during the Institute programs that from time to time throughout the year. The concept of the Institute is simple, functional and unique: provide a safe place, in a beautiful, remote setting, where aspiring writers, filmmakers, and composers can work and get advice from the best in their fields. Far from Hollywood and New York, away from the pressures of the marketplace, the fortunate few selected, are encouraged to take creative risks to find their ‘voice’ by actually working on their films or scripts or score.
SUNDANCE THE PLACE WAS A RUNDOWN SHEEP FARM ABOUT TO BE TAKEN OVER BY DEVELOPERS WITH PLANS TO BUILD CONDOS AND SHOPPING CENTERS
Over the 25 years, hundreds of filmmakers have been discovered and nurtured. Many have continued to make the kinds of films, plays and music that have launched careers. Sundance is credited with creating and strengthening an audience for the whole independent sector. Among the films that have gone from either the Institute’s lab programs or exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival to mainstream success are “Sex, Lies and Videotapes,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Big Boys Don’t Cry,” “Central Station,” and many documentaries such as “Capturing the Friedman’s”. The Sundance theatre labs have nurtured successful and important work like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” “The Laramie Project” and this year’s Tony winning play, “I am my own Wife.” It feels good to see such innovative and diverse work find its way into the larger cultural landscape, and by doing so, bring ideas, issues, new personalities and talent to audiences around the world.
Placing a film festival in a small Utah town in January was not exactly a prescription for success, but the Sundance film festival is nothing short of phenomenal, a sell-out every year with waiting lines for every film. The festival is now widely recognized around the world as the most important exhibition for an independent film or documentary. Redford often reminisces about the days when he had to literally stop people on Main Street in Park City to try to interest them in seeing a movie, but now, he sometimes worries about the crowds, the celebrities, and the hype that naturally evolves around such success. He also cautions filmmakers invited to show their work at the Festival to try to ignore the other stuff and focus on the experience of having their work seen and appreciated.
Seeing the films, meeting the filmmakers and actors is the main attraction at the festival, but for me, there was an extra special event this year that made this year’s festival even more memorable. Washington Life and the Creative Coalition honored me with a birthday party! Friends and colleagues from the Sundance Board and PBS took time out from going to films and joined the fun at a party that included a birthday song written and performed by Glenn Close and her new husband, David Shaw. Other friends who joined the celebration were Washington’s own Catherine and Wayne Reynolds and Dan and Rhoda Glickman, as well as my good friend and Board colleague, Sally Field, and producer/entrepreneur Jeff Skoll. From the catered food from one of LA’s finest eateries to the many good hearted toasts, it was the kind of birthday party that is a memory forever. What made it even more special was the fact that it was also Soroush’s birthday, even though he didn’t tell anyone this until the end of the evening. Don’t’ know how I will top such a birthday celebration in the future and many thanks to all who put it together…right in the middle of a Utah snow storm and on one of the busiest nights at the Festival.
OF COURSE PLACING A FILM FESTIVAL IN A SMALL UTAH TOWN IN JANUARY WAS NOT EXACTLY A PRESCRIPTION FOR SUCCESS BUT THE SUCCESS OF THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL IS NOTHING SHORT OF PHENOMENAL A SELL-OUT EVERY YEAR WITH WAITING LINES FOR EVERY FILM
Now if all of this is making you wish you had made the trek to Park City or if you’re feeling inclined to start now making plans, you might consider visiting the Sundance web site and finding out more about the festival and other Sundance activities. Also, I suggest to those who ask how they can get more involved to consider joining the Patron’s Circle as a way to get engaged in the Institute programs, helping to sustain them and among the privileges of being a Patron, a VIP ticket package to next year’s Festival.
THIS SUMMER SUNDANCE HOSTED MANY OF AMERICA’S BEST KNOWN MAYORS AS THEY FOCUSED ON WAYS TO FACE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISES THREATENING THEIR CITIES AND INDEED THE WORLD
There’s still much more to Sundance than the Institute or the festival. Never one to linger long on success, Redford has also epanded Sundance to include a cable channel, a catalog, and an international documentary fund. Future plans include, a conference center where different groups can gather in a beautiful natural setting to shape new ideas, plans, and solutions to the challenges of our time. This summer, Sundance hosted many of America’s best-known mayors as they focused on ways to face the environmental crises threatening their cities.
I bought into the magic big time. My husband and I purchased one of the cottages which are all privately owned and rented out through the resort management. Redford, who donated most of the 9000 acres of Sundance to a nature preserve, the North Fork Conservancy, has opened up nine new home sites on the ridge next to the ski runs. There are three or four left for those who seek a retreat that offers natural beauty and the best of every season… from mountain hikes and waterfalls to biking, riding, fishing, and yes, from time to time, dropping in on a lab or Institute program.
You may remember that at the end of his film, “The Candidate,” when Redford’s character wins his Senate race, he asks, “Now, what do we do”? Well, there is no doubt that Robert Redford knows what he’s going to do after 25 successful years: he is deep into planning the next 25, the second legacy and ways to evolve the Institute’s programs, keep the festival fresh and cutting edge, and yes, sustain the magic of Sundance.