Sundance and Social Activism

On January 23, 2020, the Sundance Film Festival will return to Utah as it continues to showcase independent films, dramatic films, short films, and more. Since its inception in 1985, the Sundance Film Festival has focused on highlighting American-made films, promoting filmmaking in Utah, and supporting new artists. As the inaugural chair of the festival, Robert Redford intended for this festival to give independent artists a place to share their works.

“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us” – Redford

Sundance has continued its historic mission of providing a space for artists and independent films, but it has also garnered a history of social activism and calls for political reform. Prior to the creation of the film festival, the Sundance Institute — founded in 1981 — aimed to explore a reassertion of “the importance of craft, story, and the human being in the art and business of making movies.”

From the beginning, both the Sundance Institute and the film festival have been targeted at bringing humanity back into a lucrative and, at times, exploitative industry. This shift in the treatment of artists challenges the traditional focus on the end result and outcome of a film or work of art, and, instead, prioritizes the process of the creation and the stories that comprise an artwork. Independent films stand out from the typical major studio film system as they are usually created on a lower budget, the content might be less mainstream, and the filmmaker’s artistic vision is more fully realized. Inherently, Sundance aims to protect artists, stories, and films — items that may be overlooked or destroyed in conventional filmmaking processes under major studios.

To those who live in Utah, or simply avid skiers, the name “Sundance” might ring more bells for the ski resort of the same name. Redford bought the area in 1968, so it may come as no surprise that the Sundance Institute and Film Festivals are dedicated to environmental activism and “the balance of art, nature, and community.”

With Sundance’s emphasis on storytelling and taking care in the process of crafting films, the Institute takes a similar approach towards respecting the environment. The stories we tell tend to reveal our values and stances on modern issues, and Sundance — especially in the last few years — has focused on addressing climate change and “apocalyptic activism.”

Films that have focused on global warming, coral bleaching, oil drilling, water supply, and more have re-centered the festival towards an emphasis on social and political critique. Independent films already stand apart from major movie studios in their more niche topics, but recent shifts to more direct commentary on contemporary issues have further elevated the Sundance Film Festival to a renowned status of social activism. In 2016, the Sundance Institute implemented a new initiative to further support films that discuss the environment and climate change as this issue is so prevalent in contemporary independent films. While Sundance aims to avoid political ties and does not want to be associated with the polarization of modern political parties, these films help to establish the festival as a source of relevant and necessary social commentary.

In another instance of the Sundance Film Festival’s ties to social activism, the last few years of the festival have coincided with the Women’s March and the development of the “Me Too” movement.

On January 21, 2017, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, several protests around the United States and in some international locations took place to advocate for women’s rights, reproductive rights, and human rights, among others. As this protest coincided with the Women’s March, several celebrities alongside regular citizens were seen protesting and sharing their stories. These protests were profound and impactful, and while Sundance was merely the setting for these demonstrations, it brought the festival into the forefront of women’s rights and social activism.

The film industry has consistently been a male-dominated field, and in the wake of the “Me Too” movement, independent filmmakers have begun to focus on telling survivors’ stories. This movement sparked a major cultural shift in the film industry, and especially so at Sundance — where Harvey Weinstein both made his reputation and assaulted dozens of women. The festival has now shifted towards telling more survivors’ stories and more films from female directors have been featured. In 2019, 53% of films shown at the Sundance Festival were directed by women, and, in the same year, the documentary “Untouchable” was debuted — this film focuses on telling the stories of survivors and the climate that has contributed to the harassment and assault in the film industry. The festival has since responded to the movement by implementing a new code of conduct and, of course, they have continued to release movies that share necessary stories.

Since its inception, and continuing into the contemporary era, the Sundance Film Festival has long been a source of social activism, social commentary, and critiques of society. This year, I am excited to see what modern problems the festival tackles, and I hope that this festival continues to inspire citizens to be politically engaged and aware of the social issues that surround us all. As 2020 will be an election year, I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s festival took on a more political tone, but no matter the subject, I know that these independent films will focus on telling the important stories and overlooked narratives that deserve attention.


Photo Credit: 1, 2, 3, 4