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Sundance Live I: Redford, New Frontier and “Mary & Max” Kick Off Sundance ’09

Sundance Live I: Redford, New Frontier and "Mary & Max" Kick Off Sundance '09

The 25th edition of the Sundance Film Festival began today in Park City, Utah, and indieWIRE was on the scene in what will be the first of a daily series of continuously updated dispatches. Today, Robert Redford was on hand to take questions at the fest’s opening press conference, Sundance’s New Frontier section kicked off a week of presenting innovation in cinematic culture, and Adam Elliot’s “Mary & Max” became the first Australian and/or animated film to open Sundance.

Redford “Hopeful” as Sundance Celebrates Silver Anniversary

International expansion, diversity, discovery and change were among the hot topics as the Sundance Film Festival opened today in Park City, Utah. Responding to a question at an afternoon press conference, Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford acknowledged that the Fest is in talks to expand into Abu Dhabi to “expand our mission of opportunity into the Middle East.”

Redford added that nothing is set in stone for the expansion because talks are still underway. “When you get too many cooks in the kitchen, you slow down the parade,” Redford cautioned, warning that a deal could fall apart. But then added, “We will probably go into that territory.”

The news of the potential move overseas comes as the Sundance Film Festival celebrates it’s silver anniversary this year. “It feels like Sundance has been celebrating its 25th anniversary for the past few years,” quipped Robert Redford this afternoon. As he often does on the opening day of the festival, he kicked off the Fest by re-capping, for the press, the festival’s history and reiterating it’s committment to discovering new filmmakers.

“Diversity is the name of our game,” Robert Redford emphasized, when asked inevitably about California Prop 8, which lead some to critiize Sundance because of it’s location in Utah and the strong Mormon support of the anti-gay marriage initiative.

Later, Robert Redford expressed concern about the economy and excitement that the inauguration of incoming U.S. President Barack Obama will take place during the festival. He also expressed a hope that the new administration will expand its funding of the arts. “Anything is going to be better than before,” he said regarding the sorry state of funding for the arts in the United States.

“I am glad to see the gang that couldn’t shoot straight get out of there,” Redford said of the departing Bush administration, reiterating a hope that the change to come leads to greater support for artists and the arts.

Concluding the thought as the press conference came to a close, Redford said, “I’m hopeful.” [Eugene Hernandez]

“World Class” New Frontier Turns Three

Now in its third year, Sundance is offering is New Frontier once again on Main Street, which it says is an “evolution in storytelling on and off screen.” Fifteen artists, artist collectives and scientists have installations which explore new directions in filmmaking and innovative visual exploration. Translation: Sundance is giving a hint into what it sees as an “expansion of the craft of cinematic storytelling beyond what is traditionally found in theaters.” Beyond the installations themselves, New Frontier will host live panels, discussions with artists, microcinema and live performances.

The artists and scientists along with Sundance’s Shari Frilot and John Cooper at the opening event for the festival’s New Frontier section. Photo by Brian Brooks.

“This is a world class show,” said Shari Frilot who curates the New Frontier while opening the event Thursday. “Many of the artists have had gallery and museum shows around the world.” Speaking to indieWIRE later, Frilot said she traveled the world of new media shows and speaking with colleagues, many of whom also hail from her background as an experimental filmmaker.

“I was interested in [finding] artists who are interested in reaching a different audience – and I think they al to some degree speak a filmic language.” “I want to make work that moves you and is politically engaged,” said London-based artist Maria Marshall, whose installation, “The Works of Maria Marshall” are one of the New Frontier installations. “I’m attracted to the film [world], but I don’t know how it will relate. It’s my first experience and I’m about to find out…”

Live “performance” is also a daily mainstay of the Frontier with artist Michael Portnoy’s “Michael Portnoy: Provocateur,” which is best described as an intersection between art and communication. The “daily art of conversation” will include chats/performance with the Yes Men on Friday, Alan Cumming on Saturdayand Sandra Bernhard on Sunday with shows lasting 45 minutes beginning at 4:30 (other guests will be announced for subsequent shows going through Wednesday). “There will be conversations, scenarios and fun, insightful and – therapeutic,” said Portnoy to iW.

“We want to create [an experience] where story plays into art,” said Sundance director of programming John Cooper. “And that’s what we’re about at Sundance.” [Brian Brooks]

“Mary & Max” Opens Fest

“I’m Geoff Gilmore and I’m happy to be here,” Robert Redford joked as he took the stage at the Eccles Theatre in Park City to introduce both Gilmore and Adam Elliot’s “Mary & Max,” the opening night film of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

“Right now, I’m excited by what I’m always excited by,” said Redford. “I like the idea that you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know what’s around the corner or what’s next. I find that exciting. Because that means you’re going to get surprises. And discovery always brings surprises. And that’s what we’re about. We’re about discovery. It’s up to you find out what you like about us. I’m happy you’re here because I always am. And I’m really hoping that tonight you feel the way I do. This film were going to be showing here tonight is truly representative of some of the things I’ve talked about: Surprise and change. And I hope that you’re enormously satisfied.”

Redford brought out the real Gilmore, who thanked the festival’s sponsors, and introduced both Elliot and “Mary & Max”‘s producer, Melanie Coombs. “It’s hard to introduce a film that description gives no justice to,” he said. “This is a film that’s really about compassion, about love, about friendship, about ideas. It’s a marvel.”

“Mary & Max,” shot in stop motion animation, follows the pen-pal relationship between Mary, a lonely, chubby 8-year old girl living in suburban Australia, and Max, an equally lonely, severly obese fortysomething suffering from a mental disorder and struggling through life in New York City.

“I’ve used the word ‘honor’ about a hundred times tonight so I want to use it once here,” said Elliot before the screening began. “It is an honor, not just to be the first Australian feature film to open the festival but to be the first full-length feature animation. So, on behalf of all those communities… I feel honored to represent them.”

It’s been almost five years since Elliot started the project. “After winning the Oscar for ‘Harvie Krumpet,’ somebody said to me ‘well, it’s all downhill from here,’ he said. “But I managed to come up with an idea… I thought, well, what I was going to write about next. I look over to the corner of my room and there’s this box of all these letters which I started re-reading. I’d forgotten what an interesting character he was.”

Shot over a tedious 57 weeks, Elliot “really underestimated how difficult it was going to be to make [the] film.” “Somebody asked me ‘what is it like to make a stop-motion feature?’ And I said, ‘it’s like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time.'” [Peter Knegt]

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