Oscar-winning director and actor Robert Redford founded the nonprofit Sundance Institute, sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival, in 1981.
Oscar-winning director and actor Robert Redford founded the nonprofit Sundance Institute, sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival, in 1981. Kristina Loggia
Every year, film fans and studio executives travel to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, a showcase for independent films from around the world.
While feature films are always a draw at the festival, documentary fans closely follow the nonfiction films that premiere at Sundance each year.
The prominence of documentary film at the festival is due in large part to the influence of Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, the festival's sponsor. A longtime supporter of documentary film, Redford has worked to highlight nonfiction film at the festival for nearly 30 years.
Redford talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his commitment to documentary film and the genre's role in furthering social change.
On his personal interest in documentary film
"I've been ... a big proponent of documentaries going way back into the '70s. I was very influenced in my own career with the effect of documentaries that were originally from [documentarians] Emile de Antonio, [D.A.] Pennebaker, [Richard] Leacock, [the] Maysles brothers. I was very impressed with the feeling of 'you're there' — the live energy in the moment that they portrayed. ... I made a lot of documentaries that probably a lot of people never heard of in ... the '70s, just because of my commitment."
On why he's promoted documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival
"When ... Sundance started its lab program ... it was basically creating an opportunity [for independent filmmakers] going from development of projects to exhibition of projects. ... Once the festival survived — and I didn't know that it would, because it started very humbly and with little to no support ... Once that survived after about three to four years, we knew we were going to sustain ourselves.
"I was able to then see Sundance as a platform where we could start reaching out to increase the value of things that were not being represented, documentaries being the big one. So we were able to then use the festival to start promoting documentaries more and more and more, and that was 1989.
"Then, when we went into the '90s ... globalization created a new opportunity ... to bring films from other parts of the world to Sundance, including documentaries. So documentaries gained steam all through those early years.
"So I thought, 'OK, now that it's sustaining itself, how can we keep promoting and increasing it?' ... The new technology that's come on at an alarming rate has increased opportunities for documentaries to be made quicker. So they get to the screen quicker, so they bring messages about what America is like today quicker to the screen."
On why he feels documentaries can cut through ideological divides
"One of the beautiful things about America is its diversity. And one of the complicated things about America is its diversity — because it can lead to polarization, like we're seeing now in politics, which is a pretty depressing thing.
"You don't have any kind of compromising capability to put something out there without ... having barking dogs in one side, or people defending on the other ... we're kind of stuck. So I think documentaries can kind of carve through that and say, 'Look, here's what's going on out there because everything is so polarized' ...
"I don't know if this might be wishful thinking on my part, but I've always felt that documentaries were beginning to take the place of — or at least add to — investigative journalism. As the media, and particularly the print media, has declined for a number of reasons over the years, you wonder where you're going to get the truth. With the advance of new technology just bombarding with all kinds of stories about what the truth is ... you don't know what's what.
"So when a documentary comes, and it takes time to give 50 minutes of a point of view about a family in some city going through some ordeal — it might be edged towards advocacy, but there's got to be a lot of truth in it. And so ... I see — as imperfect as it may be — I think documentaries provide a real service to the public because they give you maybe a better look at where the truth is."