Robert Redford addresses diversity in film at Sundance

Robert Redford

As the Sundance Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, founder Robert Redford weighed in on the controversy over the lack of diversity this year among Oscar nominees in acting categories.

“I’m not focused on that part,” the two-time Oscar winner said. “To me, it’s about the work, and whatever reward comes from that, that’s great. But I don’t think about it.”

Sundance has always embraced diversity because of its independent nature, he said, declining to address how mainstream Hollywood might replicate those demographics. This year’s Oscar nominees include only white actors and actresses. Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Spike Lee, a winner of this year’s Governors Award, have said they will skip the ceremony.

“Diversity comes out of the word ‘independence’. Basically, that’s the principle we operate from,” Redford said of Sundance, where such filmmakers as Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) honed their craft and premiered early work.

“Diversity comes out of that. It’s an automatic thing. If you’re independent-minded, you’re going to do things differently than the common form.”

Sundance Institute director Keri Putnam said part of the organisation’s mission is to discover new voices “from across the spectrum of our society”.

“Together with a lot of organisations like ours, whose job it is to support and find new storytellers, we do provide a really great pipeline of talent into the mainstream,” she said.

“We have a seat at that table in terms of providing a voice, a constructive voice, to the decision makers to say, ‘hey, take a look at this range of talent’.”

This year’s festival includes 123 feature films chosen from more than 12,700 submissions. Forty-nine are from first-time filmmakers.

The festival has expanded its documentary slate and Redford included non-fiction films in the festival from the start to “create a platform to elevate documentaries and see they’re much closer to narrative films.”

Spike Lee will unveil his documentary about Michael Jackson on Sunday.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the festival’s New Frontiers section, which celebrates the intersection of technology and storytelling. And this year, it’s all about virtual reality, said festival director John Cooper.

“It just kept coming and kept coming and it’s fascinating,” he said. “I was slightly a little bit of a nay-sayer about it, until you start putting on that headset and going into these realities that are so moving.”