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."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Every year, we talk with the filmmakers behind the pictures nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This year's finalists will be announced on January 24th, but you could have seen six of those 15 on the Academy's shortlist last year at the Sundance Festival. Eight new documentaries appeared at Sundance Festival this year. There will also be a panel called How Docs Have Changed Change, which Robert Redford will participate in. He joins us in just a moment.
If there's a documentary that made you change, give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That address is npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're trying to get Robert Redford on the line from his office in New York. I should meanwhile read this email that we've got from - this from Evie Stone - excuse me - Dorie Greenspan.
I was supposed to be on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION today, but I was bumped for another guest. Guess who? Robert Redford. And you know what? I'm fine with it. I'd bump a lot of people for Robert Redford, but stay tuned, I'm rescheduled for next week, January 17th, a Tuesday, which is only right, because I'll be talking about the remarkable Tuesday with Dorie Group and the adventure they had working their way through baking from my house to yours over four years. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to Mr. Redford.
We will be, too, as soon as he gets on the line.
By the way, if you were looking for some of the films nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards this coming year, 2012, well, six of them, as we mentioned, on the list of 15 finalists were at the Sundance Festival last year. And Robert Redford joins us now on the phone from his office in New York. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
ROBERT REDFORD: Hi.
CONAN: I have to begin by asking you about a change reported yesterday that starting next year to be eligible for the Academy Award, a feature documentary has to include a review published in The New York Times or in the Los Angeles Times, and I wonder how that's going to change things.
REDFORD: I don't know. I mean, it's an interesting notion. I think whatever good there could be in it and whatever could be tricky in it won't be known for a while, so I'd probably won't comment until I see how it - what happens when it comes out. I don't have a preordained opinion.
CONAN: It was reported as a change designed to reduce the number - I think the committee felt a little overwhelmed.
REDFORD: I'm sure they did.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REDFORD: I'm sure they did. It's easy to feel overwhelmed these days.
CONAN: Because just the number of documentaries that have been coming out every year, and I'm - I imagine I don't know how involved you are in the selection process at Sundance. I assume that other people that do that for the most part, but there are more and more films available every year.
REDFORD: I can give you a little bit of a history about the aspect of documentaries and also of shorts because I've been pretty heavily involved with it being 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 Emile De Antonio, Pennebaker, Leacock, Maysles brothers. I was very impressed with the feeling of you're there - the live energy in the moment that they portrayed. And so I think - and I made a lot of documentaries that probably a lot of people never heard of in through the '70s just because of my commitment.
But when - later on, when Sundance started its lab program in 1980 - and the festival, by the way, Neal, is an outgrowth of the labs. It's not something that's just singly on its own, started on its own. It's an outgrowth of our lab program. So it was basically creating an opportunity going from development of projects to exhibition of projects for independent filmmakers. So the documentaries, once the festival survived - and I didn't know that it would because it started very humbly and with little to no support, and so we had one theater working and maybe just a very few films. So 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 and globalization created a new opportunity, which was borders as they collapsed, we were able 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? So that led to the House of Docs and so on and so forth. So 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, and I think that's an advantage.
Shorts had the same thing. Back in late - mid to late '90s, we started featuring shorts. And I was told at that time, well, why would you take up that space? There's no place for them to go? And I said, well, someday, there will be. I mean, there will be a venue for shorts, and new technology brought that opportunity, with cellphones and the like. So I think trying to stay ahead of the game has been a big part of Sundance, without losing the definition of who we are, the way we do things. And that's a whole other ordeal, how to survive...
REDFORD: ...the threats of ambush markers that come in or leveragers at the festival that want to use the festival to leverage their own special interests. That becomes - that kind of clouds the place, and you have to fight hard to remind people who we really are.
CONAN: And as you look at - well, you're going to be on that panel, How Docs Changed Change. One of the things that has changed is, I think, the percentage - and maybe this is just a perception, but I could be wrong, but I think it's accurate. The change in the number of documentaries that are out and out advocacy, as opposed to ethnographic studies and the like.
REDFORD: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's a chance for - I mean, look, we're very - 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 it being - having barking dogs in one side or people defending on the other. I mean, it's - 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.
And I guess, you know, this might be - 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, what the truth is, what the truth is. And very often, very little of that is the truth, 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's - it might be edged towards advocacy, but there's got to be a lot of truth in it. And so I guess, 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, rather than all the, well, you know, the fantasies talking that we're hearing in there.
CONAN: Here's an email from Valerie in Minneapolis: "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" is one of the most powerful documentaries I've ever seen. It captured the horror and impunity that still happens daily in the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo. And I don't know a single person who was not outraged after watching it.
These are stories that are sometimes hard to find in the daily newspapers or the weekly magazines or even more serious journalism.
REDFORD: That's sad. It's true. Well, that's, I guess, an example of what I'm talking about. That's great. I think we provide that opportunity. And all this year, we have - the daughter of a U.S. senator has a film in the festival about rape in the military, and it's very strong. Well, that's going to be a point of view that, you know, do - how much do we see in the media today reporting about issues that are very, very real rather than just sensational? And so I think the festival does provide that.
CONAN: Let's see if we got a caller involved in the conversation. 800-989-8255. Robert Redford is with us, of course, the actor and director, founder of the Sundance Institute and a panelist on Power of Story: How Docs Changed Change at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, which is coming up in, how many weeks?
REDFORD: Oh, God. Don't remind me because I think...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REDFORD: ...I think it's coming up about a week.
CONAN: You'll be flying out West in shortly.
REDFORD: Oh, gee, yeah.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get - this is Michael. Michael is on the line with us from Fayette in Alabama.
MICHAEL: Good afternoon.
REDFORD: Congratulations on your football team.
MICHAEL: Oh, thanks. But I'm neutral on - unlike other members of my family, I'm neutral on Alabama Crimson Tide, roll that rah, rah stuff...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MICHAEL: ...because of the power of one documentary that really spoke to my life and told the story of those of us with Asperger syndrome to the rest of the public. And because of - what - do this have to be only released in theaters or can a poller(ph) nominated another documentary?
CONAN: The - for the Oscar, it has to be released in a theater. And as we mentioned, the new qualification next year, also reviewed by The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. So there are institutions that will rent a theater, and you can show it one day in New York or Los Angeles to qualify for the Oscar. But that's not going to be enough anymore.
MICHAEL: But can I - for this program, can I...
CONAN: Oh, absolutely. No. We have no such qualms that can show on the radio.
MICHAEL: And the other things I want to ask Mr. Redford a question about Hollywood in general and then I'll hang up. Bad - I mean, "Good Hair" from Chris Rock, just because of its hilarity as well as its deep revealing about the pitfalls of global trade and the "Temple Grandin" story. I think it was for HBO, but it might have been released in theaters where she herself - no that was a...
CONAN: That was a...
MICHAEL: ...film biography. But there was something on the Discovery Channel or the History Channel, et cetera, which Temple Grandin herself narrated about her own life.
MICHAEL: It really communicated about Asperger's - those of us with Asperger syndrome to the rest of the world. Here's my question, and then I'll hang up.
CONAN: And very quickly, if you could.
MICHAEL: OK. Mr. Redford, I'm so really honored to be able to talk with you, but I'm - as a director, maybe you can give me information about a movement I would like to see in this country. Although I'm a political liberal - I'm a faith-based Christian liberal and I'm about that program yesterday on political moderates - I'm really concerned about the possible effects of R-rated movies, especially dumb, ignorant Judd Apatow-type, Todd Phillips-type comics - comedy.
REDFORD: Well, why don't I try to answer your question on the Asperger because I think that's at the heart of what you're talking about here. You're covering many topics. But the Asperger thing, let me just comment on that. The festival really does hit those issues. For example, in this festival there's going to be a film about dyslexia. Letting people know - a lot of people don't know the real story about dyslexia and how it can be solved. Asperger is another thing. Dyslexia is another thing. Autism is another thing. There are films every year - and documentaries and films alike that deal with those issues. So I'm obviously in a bit of a boasting mode here. But we do show those films because that's about America. That's about America today, not the hype and the fantasy that sometimes projected with moderators and the way information is disseminated to the public, which is like barking dogs hyperventilating the information. It's like, hey, slow down and look carefully of what we've got.
And I think the festival - I'm very proud of the fact that the festival take these issues on and have for years and make dramatic examples of them. So in terms of your question, I'm happy to say that, yes, we are showing those films and will continue to show those films.
CONAN: Robert Redford of the Sundance Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Here's an email from Chris(ph) in Grand Rapids: The documentary "Restrepo" was not only a great documentary, but one of the best war movies I've ever watched.
Unfortunately, Tim Hetherington, one of the co-filmmakers there, died covering the war in Libya. I don't know if you had the chance to meet him.
REDFORD: No, I didn't. But we certainly promoted the film and then continued to promote it because that was a film that we wanted people to see to say, this is what it's really like to be in the trenches in war and particularly with people as valiant as these guys were. And so we took that film and pushed it as best we could. You know, we are a nonprofit organization, so there's a certain point where we have to stop. But we tried to use that 10 days at the festival to do what we can to push those films out to wider audiences because that's the main objective of Sundance, is to not only support independent voices through film, but also do whatever we can to get those films to as many people as possible to see. So "Restrepo" was a wonderful example. So was the film called "Buck," about a man working with horses in a kind way rather than cowboying them by beating them and kicking them and so forth. So there are those films that I'm actually quite proud of.
CONAN: "Buck" is up on the short list for this year's Academy Award. We featured Buck Brannaman when he was - the film was shown at the Silverdocs festival last year so.
REDFORD: Well, I used him on a film that I did before, "The Horse Whisperer," years ago as a kind of an adviser, and I got quite connected to him. Then I realized that this was an exceptional human being that more and more people needed to know about, so we were happy to put his film in the festival. And now, it's going on its way. That's great.
CONAN: And in 60 seconds, I beg some advice on - I was going riding really for the first time that summer, later that summer. And what he told me enabled me to be walking for the next three days.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REDFORD: What did he tell you to do to - what did he tell you to do, stay off the horse?
CONAN: No, no, no. I could keep on the balls of your feet and keep your toes pointed out. That was pretty much - wrap your leg...
REDFORD: He always pointed out, put your butt on the back of the saddle and put your chest over the horn, and you'll be fine.
CONAN: I was and - but for Buck Brannaman - from you, I will not going to listen. From Buck Brannaman, I will.
REDFORD: Well, don't - hey, don't listen to me. I've advised people that have found themselves flat on the ground afterward. So Buck's the guy to listen to, not me.
CONAN: Yeah. Before we let you go, we have to ask you about an unusual honor that has come your way. Apparently, a beetle discovered under a rock in Utah has been named in your honor, a new species.
REDFORD: Well, that fits, because a lot of people think I came out from under a rock, so I think that fits really well.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REDFORD: I mean, I'm surprised at nothing these days. I'm - when I got that, I said, well, is it a joke? When I found out that it wasn't, I said, OK. Well, then it's an honor. I'll accept that. I'm a beetle.
CONAN: Congratulations. George, Paul, George - John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bob.
REDFORD: And Bob. Bob from under a rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Thanks very much, and good luck on your trip out West.
REDFORD: Thank you. Thank you.
CONAN: Robert Redford joined us from New York. Tomorrow, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us from New Hampshire, where he'll have all the post-primary news as candidates clear out and head for the Palmetto State of South Carolina. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.