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Saturday, April 28, 2007


Over the years I managed to have many arguments with filmmakers and enthusiasts about the power and influence of the Sundance Film Festival on independent film in the U.S. A couple of weeks back, after spending a few happy and nostalgic days with John and Janet Pierson of Austin, Texas I was reminded of the early years of Sundance and its effect on American indie film.

While observations of Sundance are passionate, others acute and perceptive, most are filtered through a lens of different myths that surround the institute and festival either by envious outsiders or insiders who engaged in a battle for the heart and soul of what they felt the festival should stand for and lost.


In the very beginning, Redford wanted the Sundance Institute and festival to feature regional character drama's with a political statement both in the Institute's development process and with the U.S Film Festival (as it was called before becoming Sundance). Redford had a soft spot for identity films, especially dealing with issues in the Native American community out west and environmetnal issues.

The first films to emerge from the Sundnace Institute were EL NORTE, THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ, HEARTLAND and the first films to win awards at the U.S. Film Festival Park City were WAITING FOR THE MOON a film that bitterly accounts the lesbian love between Alice B. Toklas and Getrude Stein. None of the films Redford wanted to push out into the world fit either stereotype of "coming of age" or "Hollywood wannabees". In some circles, they would say, if you wanted to act in a Sundance movie to had to be able to wear bib overalls.

Michelle Satter, who was one of the early employees at the Institute responsible for feature film development said, the Institute did not have a political censoring mechanism but it did have a stylistic one. The approach to formal filmmaking, following a Aristotelian golden mean and three act story structure was extremely conservative. Other Sundance employees like Tony Safford felt in the mid and late 80s, Sundance had missed the boat, when most of the greatest new American filmmakers being crowned at the Cannes Festival in France.

If anything, the early years of the Sundance Institute and festival defined its own stereotype of being what we called at the time "crunchy granola" films. In the arena of Native American films, Sundance championed Jonathan Wach's POWWOW HIGHWAY.

Many will argue Sundance had a aesthetic set by Redford or Sundance film family members like Annick Smith who made HEARTLAND a politically correct version of western drama that lionized the little man. However, soon Smith would be out of the sphere of influence that at the beginning propelled its programming forward. First, to others it was clear these films with a "content" driven agenda would soon give way to an author driven agenda.

But it should come as no surprise films like Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING, Gus Van Zant's DRUGSTORE COWBOY, the Coen's Brothers BLOOD SIMPLE, Jim Jarmusch's STRANGER THAN PARADISE, John Water's HAIRSPRAY or documentary fillmakers Errol Morris' THIN BLUE LINE and Michael Moore's ROGER & ME were completely absent from the Sundance obit -- they never received Institute backing and were never screened in the mountain side festival. As Safford commented, Sundance missed the boat on the title wave of new American independent filmmakers who redefined the film industry after the studio system fell apart in the middle 1980s.

That new less politically correct face of Sundance arrived in January 1989 when Steven Soderbergh arrived with SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE shot in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. The slacker aesthetic of sex, lies and videotape wasn't a politically correct western drama, nor a Native American sufferage film -- it defied the angry indie films that emerged from the 60s. The film would be Sundance's first big hit. It subject was neither coming of age or a hollywood wannabee with a perverted sex tape maker who masturbates to his tapes of women "talking" about sex.

Just as likely, you will find people from that time argue that Sundance was not setting the agenda of the indie film community as much as following it and falling prey to it. Much bigger winds were blowing in the industry in the mid and late 1980s and Sundance became caught in them just like everybody else. Films were less often being made for a theatrical release in movie houses owned by the studios and more for direct to video and other ancillary markets. In fact, the ancillary markets were driving film to a much larger extent than the theatrical market. This gave indies an inside track to get around the studios. It was the VHR and home viewing of movies that would drive the new aesthetic not the much ballyhooed but mythic dominance of Redford's Sundance.

Sundance Institute and what was to become Sundance Film Festival struggled for nearly 10 years with a continuous lack of success. In the realm of independent film, it barely held a candle to Telluride and certainly nothing like the New York Film Festival, Cannes, Berlin or Toronto.

Yet, against all probability Sundance, nestled in a difficult and inaccessible second-rate ski resort corner of the Rocky Mountains would come to play a large role in the indie film movement even though it came late to the game and did not have success until the 1990s.

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