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Sean P. Means: Trump penetrated Sundance's bubble, but the festival looked beyond

Published February 6, 2017 9:19 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Park City •

Typically, very little of the outside world permeates the bubble that forms around Park City during the Sundance Film Festival.

This, as we are constantly being reminded, is not a typical year.

The notion of a Donald Trump presidency went from imagined to real while some 40,000 people attended the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and the newly installed "leader of the free world" was uppermost in many people's minds.

Among the leadership of the Sundance Institute, though, he was not on their lips. In the opening news conference on Jan. 19, institute founder Robert Redford, executive director Keri Putnam and festival director John Cooper carefully avoided the T-word.

Redford strived to keep the conversation beyond, or perhaps above, politics.

"Presidents come and go," he said. "The pendulum swings back and forth, it always has, it probably always will."

Redford reiterated that he and Sundance, as a nonprofit arts organization, "don't occupy ourselves with politics. … We stay focused on the stories being told by artists."

He did predict that You-Know-Who would stir up a countermovement "to go against whatever choice is made to cut things away that affects people. They're going to rebel against that. A movement will be created, and I think that will be very, very healthy."

Trump's face and voice showed up in the first movie screened at the festival: "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," the continuing adventures of Al Gore, the former vice president and environmental activist. Trump pops up from time to time, usually in a Fox News clip, decrying the Paris climate talks where Gore is laboring behind the scenes to secure a global deal. At the end, after the election, there's footage of Gore's visit to Trump Tower.

On Main Street on the morning of Friday, Jan. 20, as Trump was taking the oath of office, the Sundance attendees scarcely noticed. Eight years earlier, when Barack Obama was first inaugurated, there were crowds watching on big-screen TVs on Main Street, and viewing parties at a few venues. Nothing like that happened this time.

Trump's words — particularly the words he said into a hot mic about grabbing female body parts — were referenced frequently the next day in the Women's March on Main, easily the biggest political demonstration the festival has ever seen. (Sundance had no role in organizing the march or rally, though Putnam and Cooper did show up for it.)

The march drew an estimated 8,000 people to Old Main Street and a rally in a Swede Alley parking lot around the corner. They heard comedians Chelsea Handler and Jessica Williams, actors Maria Bello, Connie Britton and Mary McCormack, and a performance by the Baltimore step team profiled in the documentary "Step."

There was even an old-school rabble-rouser: United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who at 86 can lay claim to knowing Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

Through the festival, Trump popped up in a few documentaries. When I saw "Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press" — which spotlights wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker and the dangers of billionaires with a grudge against media outlets — on the Wednesday of the festival, I was surprised at the end to see footage of Trump's swearing-in ceremony. It was surprising because director Brian Knappenberger managed to edit the footage into his movie after the festival had started, and because it was the first time I had actually seen the moment.

Trump became a hot topic at the festival's closing-night awards ceremony last Saturday as an immediate reaction to his executive order banning travel of refugees and of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. While many were launching quickly organized protests at America's airports, the assembled artists at Sundance also spoke out.

Putnam pulled no punches at the awards ceremony, though, again, she didn't use Trump's name.

"We know that closing our borders to these and other artists will stop the flow of ideas and inspiration that are so vital to the global community," she said to sustained applause. "We stand with you and we stand with all the people risking their lives for their values or seeking refuge from violence or persecution who are now denied entry to our country."

Several of the speakers — both presenters and award winners — followed suit. The funniest line was from comic Larry Wilmore, a member of the U.S. Documentary jury, who said, "Even though I grew up Catholic, today I am a Muslim. Tomorrow, I have to go to the airport, so I'll be Catholic again."

But as the awards were handed out, a curious thing happened. The movies that overtly called out Trump weren't a factor in the awards. Instead, the winners — like the romantic documentary "Dina" or the unsettling comedy-drama "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," both Grand Jury winners — homed in on bigger issues of humanity struggling to find itself.

Once again, Sundance was looking beyond politics and focusing on stories. When Trump went low, Sundance went high.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.






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