Sony Pixel Power calrec Sony

From the Archives: Sundance Founder Robert Redford on Why He's Always Believed in the Power of Documentary Filmmaking

18/08/2022

Editor's Note: In honor of his 86th birthday, we're looking back at a profound interview with our founder Robert Redford. In 2007, Redford spoke with us about the power and future of documentary filmmaking and his words are as important today as they were 15 years ago.by Cara Mertes

The Sundance Film Festival's longstanding commitment to documentary has been driven by the personal connection founder and president Robert Redford feels for the form. Leading up to the premiere of Chicago 10, the second doc to ever open the Festival, we talked to Redford about the past, present, and possible future of documentaries.

You made an early commitment to documentary. Why was that?

A lot of what Sundance is today has to do with my early impressions as a kid. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, and our main entertainment was going to the movie theater on Saturday night. I remember being impressed by the Pathe newsreels, which were really an early form of documentaries.

They brought you information, including images of the Second World War that was going on, and if you had relatives in the war there was a personal connection that probably hooked me. There was also something about the grainy sense of reality that really stood out against the feature presentations of narrative films and animation. So the early genesis of this goes back to being very impressed with those newsreels.

When did you start to think of documentary as something other than straight journalism?

In the 1950s, I remember the McCarthy hearings on television, and it was all extremely dramatic and it really struck me. Then, in the '60s I saw Emile DeAnontio's films on the same hearings, and it was suddenly clear how a filmmaker could work with real events and also tell you more of the whole story. And I realized that documentaries could carry a weight that fiction films didn't seem to have, and I started to get hooked on them.

But at that time, almost all documentaries were in the talking-head style and were primarily academic. And then they started to take a new turn with the work of people like Drew Associates, Lee Pennebaker, the Maysles. Suddenly, the camera was moving, and they were covering live things that were so dramatic that I began to think, This drama of reality is as strong, if not stronger, than the narrative theatrical films in the marketplace.

And this was the impetus for you to become involved in the making of documentaries?

That's right. In the late '60s and early '70s, as a sidebar to my own career, I began to think that I wanted to get into documentaries in some way. I started by supporting documentarians by either narrating or producing or co-producing or arranging money for them.

It started out with smaller films about the threats to the environment or Native American issues on Indian lands where developers were coming in trying to wipe them out. My interest continued to build until finally in the mid-'70s, I began to feel that there would be a future for documentaries as they evolved and that someday they would evolve to a place where they would be equivalent to mainstream, narrative filmmaking. I just really had that belief.

You started the Sundance Film Festival in 1984. How did documentaries fit into the idea for the Festival?

From the very first Festival, we've screened documentaries. And by the early '90s, the Festival had formed enough of a visible platform that we could start leveraging it more aggressively to promote nonfiction work. So we started pushing documentaries by positioning them more highly, giving them more screenings, showing more of them.

In 2001, the Institute began giving grants to documentarians when the Soros Documentary Fund became the Sundance Documentary Fund. How did this come to fruition?

By that time we had a solid platform to show documentaries at the Festival, we could see the potential for audiences to grow, and we wanted to provide resources to get more of these films made. By providing both funding and a strong platform for exhibition, we hoped we could raise awareness about international issues of human rights.

We went to Diane Weyermann, who had been instrumental in starting up the Soros Documentary Fund at the Open Society Institute, and we worked out how the fund could come over to Sundance. A lot of the pieces came together at the right time. And now, we also provide labs for documentarians to support the creative side of their work.

Are you surprised at the level of success that documentaries are now achieving?

I've always believed in these films and have always been committed to them. I'm very surprised by many other things, but not that documentaries are catching on.

Do you consider documentary as a way to directly approach deeply political and urgent questions?

Definitely. I want Sundance to be a forum for cultural exchange and for political dialogue. We're not hearing the truth about a lot of issues and I'm worried that people are giving up and getting numb and not even bothering to look for the truth. It's often in documentaries-when the focus is on personal stories-that we learn the truth of current situations and events. They're not just a cultural force for storytelling; they're also political truth. If you look at Born into Brothels and Hoop Dreams and Super Size Me, these kinds of films really are a huge channel to get back to the truth. So, yeah, it is political.

Do you think that documentaries can inspire change?

I do think it's possible for a film to inform, to wake people up to the real truth of our situation. Al Gore's film [An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim] is a great example of a documentary that creates real impact-it just happens to fortunately coincide with facts about the state of our environment being publi
LINK: https://www.sundance.org/blogs/robert-redford-on-documentary-films/...
See more stories from sundance

More from Sundance Institute

28/02/2024

Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know 6 Black Filmmakers With Shorts at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

A still from Tajana Tokyo's Salone Love, which screened as part of Short F...

27/02/2024

Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know J.M. Harper, the Director of As We Speak

By Bailey Pennick One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. ...

26/02/2024

Past Lives Wins Big as Sundance Institute Projects Are Honored at the 2024 Spirit Awards

The vibe inside the big white tent of the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards wa...

26/02/2024

More Life: An Appreciation of Steve Buscemi in Parting Glances

Parting Glances. 1986. USA. Written and Directed by Bill Sherwood. Courtesy First Run Features...

23/02/2024

5 Takeaways From a Sundance Collab Conversation With Alexander Payne, Director of The Holdovers

By Stephanie Ornelas Alexander Payne has deep roots with Sundance Institute, h...

22/02/2024

Sundance Institute Announces 2024 Momentum Fellows

PARK CITY, UTAH, February 22, 2024 - Today the nonprofit Sundance Institute announced eight storytellers selected for the 2024 Momentum Fellowship. Now in its s...

16/02/2024

Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Nzingha Stewart and Keyonna Taylor, the Director and Co-Writer of Me/We

By Lucy Spicer One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival...

15/02/2024

Film Festival Watch: 12 Sundance-Supported Films Screening at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival

By Stephanie Ornelas If your film is ready for Sundance, that means you'r...

14/02/2024

Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Titus Kaphar, the Filmmaker Behind Exhibiting Forgiveness

By Bailey Pennick One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festi...

13/02/2024

Hard Eight, Velvet Buzzsaw, and More Celebrate Anniversaries in February

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Dan Gilroy's darkly comic Velvet Buzzsaw....

12/02/2024

Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Dawn Porter, the Filmmaker Behind Luther: Never Too Much

By Lucy Spicer One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival...

09/02/2024

Release Rundown: What to Watch in February, From Drift to God Save Texas

Cynthia Erivo is mesmerizing as Jacqueline, the lead character in Anthony Chen's film Drift....

08/02/2024

You Have to Feel Safe to Fail: Quotes From a Conversation With Emerald Fennell, the Writer-Director of Saltburn

By Lucy Spicer From what she jokingly describes as a hostile hotel room in Lo...

07/02/2024

Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Kobi Libii, the Filmmaker Behind The American Society of Magical Negroes

By Bailey Pennick One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festi...

26/01/2024

2024 Sundance Film Festival Announces Award Winners

Grand Jury Prizes Go To In The Summers (U.S. Dramatic Competition), Porcelain War (U.S. Documentary Competition), A New Kind of Wilderness (World Cinema Documen...

24/01/2024

2024 Sundance Film Festival Announces Short Film Award Winners

PARK CITY, UTAH, January 23, 2024 - Tonight at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival the short film jury awards were announced during the Shorts Awards Party presente...

23/01/2024

Past Lives, The Eternal Memory, and 20 Days in Mariupol Are Nominated for Oscars

As we continue to dig into the best of what's next at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, it's always nice to be reminded of our storied past and the incre...

21/01/2024

Sundance Institute Announces 2024 Merata Mita Fellow and Inaugural Graton Fellow

Libby Hakaraia and Tazbah Rose Chavez to Be Honored at Native Forum Celebration During the 2024 Sundance Film Festival...

16/01/2024

Four Decades of the Sundance Film Festival: Our Global Community's Top 10 Features

A top 10 list is a nearly impossible task to take on by yourself, especially whe...

14/01/2024

How sex, lies and videotape Turns Our Gaze Inward

By Shahnaz Mahmud Thirty-five years ago, Steven Soderbergh debuted his feature film sex, lies and videotape at the Sundance Film Festival, forever changing the...

12/01/2024

Sundance Institute Announces 2024 Screenwriters Lab and Screenwriters Intensive Fellows

12 Projects to Be Developed at Annual January Screenwriters Lab in Utah...

10/01/2024

Read Michelle Satter's Governors Award Speech in Full

photo by Al Seib / @A.M.P.A.S...

05/01/2024

2024 Sundance Film Festival Adds The Greatest Night in Pop to the Feature Film Program and Reveals Beyond Film Lineup

Artist Conversations With Steven Soderbergh, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sue Bird, Jesse E...

04/01/2024

Release Rundown: Brief Tender Light and Sometimes I Think About Dying Reach Wider Audiences This January

Daisy Ridley portrays the socially awkward Fran in Rachel Lambert's Sometime...

03/01/2024

2024 Sundance Film Festival Names Jury Members

All 16 Members of Competition Jury are Festival Alumni in Honor of 40th Edition...

29/12/2023

Watchlist: Pull Up a Seat at These Sundance Film Dinner Tables this Holiday Season

By Stephanie Ornelas We're in the thick of the holiday season, and you know...

12/12/2023

2024 Sundance Film Festival Announces Short Films Lineup and 40th Edition Programming

53 Shorts and Eight 40th Edition Celebration Screenings...

08/12/2023

Affliction and Frank & Lola Among Films Celebrating December Anniversaries

Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots portray the titular characters in writer-director Matthew Ross' thriller Frank & Lola....

06/12/2023

This Is Your First Look at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival Program

Are you ready for it? Today we're coming at you full blast with the complete lineup of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival program. All eyes will be on independ...

05/12/2023

Passages, Past Lives and Eileen Pave the Way for Sundance-Supported Film Independent Spirit Award Nominees

This morning, Joel Kim Booster and Natalie Morales announced the nominations for...

01/12/2023

Release Rundown: Eileen and Pianoforte Coming to Theaters This December

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie star in the suspenseful Eileen, based on the novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh....

29/11/2023

For Your Viewing Pleasure: The Sundance Indigenous Program's Must Watch List

Over the course of Native American Heritage Month, we have highlighted some of the Sundance Institute-supported Indigenous artists, including conversations with...

29/11/2023

Inside the Archives: A Commitment to Indigenous Artists and Storytelling

(left of center) Native Cinema curator Stephen Roe Lewis and (center) spiritual leader and storyteller Larry Cesspooch along with the In the Tradition: New Dime...

28/11/2023

Past Lives and A Thousand and One Are Honored at 2023 Gotham Awards

Earlier this evening the Gotham Film & Media Institute held their annual Gotham Awards and we're over the moon that Sundance-supported projects nabbed two m...

23/11/2023

Watchlist: Try to Escape the Holidays with These 14 Films About Being Trapped

By Stephanie Ornelas This time of year can be stressful enough without having to deal with the anxiety we sometimes get from attending holiday gatherings. The...

22/11/2023

The 39th IDA Documentary Awards Nominations Are Full of Sundance-Supported Projects

Awards season is in full swing and this morning the International Documentary As...

22/11/2023

Colorado's Stanley Hotel will host Sundance Institute's Signature Directors Lab in 2024

Park City, UT - November 22, 2023 -The nonprofit global arts organization Sundan...

21/11/2023

A Circular Path: A Conversation with Indigenous Program Alum Alexandra Lazarowich

Alexandra Lazarowich photo by Sam Richardson...

17/11/2023

Mami Wata Cinematographer Llis Soares on Creating a New Kind of Gaze

L lis Soares attends the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Mami Wata premiere on January 23, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images) By Step...

15/11/2023

What the Chuck? | A Conversation with Native Lab Fellow Jana Schmieding

by Ianeta Le'i Sipping on a frothy homemade vanilla latte, Jana Schmieding is the kind of person you want as your best friend. It's the same way I feel...

13/11/2023

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, 20 Days in Mariupol, and More Take Top Honors at 2023 Critics Choice Documentary Awards

Last month we were thrilled to see so many Sundance Film Festival projects named...

10/11/2023

Catch These 16 Sundance-Supported Documentaries at DOC NYC

By Stephanie Ornelas Let the celebration of documentary filmmaking continue. We just wrapped up our annual Doctober programming where we explored a number of ...

10/11/2023

An Indigenous Infinity: A Dispatch from Adam Piron

by Adam Piron I've been thinking a lot about time over this past year. In Western European cultures, there's the idea that the future lies in front of ...

08/11/2023

Sundance Institute and The Walt Disney Studios Launch the Project Advancement and Completion Fund to Support Underrepresented Directors

The nonprofit Sundance Institute and The Walt Disney Studios have teamed up to a...