Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper and head programmer Trevor Groth had to make hundreds of decisions to sort through the 4,068 feature-length films and 8,985 shorts that were submitted for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and they were in the thick of their final decisions as the election’s final phase unfolded. It turned out that there’s nothing like the election of Donald Trump to throw the 38-year-old festival’s purpose into sharp relief.
“We were were affected,” admitted Cooper. “It made us take stock in what we do and the nature of independent film in general, the growing necessity and power of it in some ways. It’s two worlds: we’re in the one where amazing human stories from all over the world tell the whole story of who we are, how important that is. We were seeing how the films we choose add real dimension to the issues and people and places represented in independent film. We talk about it a lot — we push it out of our heads in some ways, how audiences change by looking at these films.”
Ultimately, the programmers believe Trump’s election didn’t change their decisions. Said Cooper, “The choices we made were confirmed as important: ‘This is an important choice now.'”
On the documentary side, “no issues were amplified by the election that were not already there,” said Groth. “They are addressing issues important for who we are and the world we live in. They are talking about those stories, which now have heightened awareness to make them all the more vital.”
That includes two movies about Ferguson, Mo. and three documentaries about the Syrian conflict. “Citizen journalism is on the street with cameras,”said Cooper. “It’s crucial to telling a story that is engaging and important Some are hard to watch. There’s citizen journalism footage that is going to upset people.”
The urgency of saving the environment was already important to Sundance founder Robert Redford, who spent the summer planning this year’s New Climate Program of films talking about climate change. After the election, Redford “was shaking his head,” said Cooper. “He was not surprised. He’s the well-worn observer of politics. He’d just kinda go: ‘Kids, it’s yours.’ This is the guy who made ‘The Candidate.'”
For the Sundance staff — like everyone else — the election was an emotional time. “At the same time, with us living in this rarified world of inclusion and bold stories about different places and people,” said Cooper. “We are more encouraged and optimistic. These are our future storytellers, new filmmakers are the ones who are going to be changing the work. It’s nice to know that out there are filmmakers who are talented and striving and ambitious. That’s what it takes to heal our country.”
Clearly, there are binders of women directors at Sundance this year, although the festival is waiting for the final tally after the last remaining titles come in. (The percentage has been steadily climbing, from 23.4 percent in 2014 to 31.3 percent in 2106.)
“We have a lot of women, diversity, and inclusion,” said Cooper. “That’s the organic growth of indie film. It grew out of the short program. It’s always part of our legacy. We weren’t waking up to this. We’ve been watching it and living it for a while now. It’s organic. It has to come from the quality of the filmmaking and the talent drawn to different stories, people and places. That’s what keeps us engaged and engagement is more than doing the right thing.”
For the 2017 festival, 113 feature-length films were selected, representing 31 countries and 36 first-time filmmakers, including 19 in competition. These films were selected from 13,782 submissions including 4,068 feature-length films and 8,985 short films. Of the feature film submissions, 2,005 were from the U.S. and 2,063 were international. Ninety-five feature films at the festival will be world premieres. In 2016, the Festival drew 46,600 attendees, generated $143.3 million in economic activity for the state of Utah, and supported 1,400 local jobs.
The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 – 29 in Park City, Utah.