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At Sundance Film Festival, freedom of speech is 'vital'

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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 07:  Sundance Film Festival/Sundance NEXT FEST Director of Programming Trevor Groth speaks onstage at the "Mistress America" Los Angeles premiere during the Sundance NEXT FEST at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on August 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sundance)
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sundance
Trevor Groth is Director of Programming for the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival director of programming Trevor Groth shares the ethos that drives their curatorial vision.

The first full day of the Sundance Film Festival this year coincides with Donald Trump's inauguration, but festival director of programming Trevor Groth says the focus in Park City is on the films and the artists who make them.

He says that, at its core, the mission they have as curators of the festival is to provide a platform for voices in the independent storytelling community.

Hopefully we are a reflection of the ideas and the minds that are out there, trying to tell their stories. And, for us, a lot of it is about the First Amendment. I think freedom of speech is an element of the festival that's always been vital for what we do, because I do think artists have the ability to make an impact and make progress in our thinking culturally. They push the boundaries — sometimes it can be provocative to a point where it seems extreme, but then as those ideas start to get discussed because of this work, change is created.

When Groth joined us on The Frame to preview the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, he talked about the festival's programming ethos, their commitment to boundary-pushing films, and the trends they see among the films this year.

Interview Highlights:

The festival has a very good track record with narrative films in finding voices that are not well represented. When you're putting together the dramatic competition films, do you intentionally look to make sure that the filmmakers and the actors look like the country, and that it's not just a lot of white guys making those films?

That's definitely something that's part of the consideration for the choices we make. What we do first is we evaluate every film on its own merits and see how specific programmers responded to it or connected with it. And then, as films rise up through that process, we make index cards for them, put them on the board, and we'll talk about the qualities of the films — how you think they work, or how you think they're trying something new in the film space.

You make the selections that way, and then as a follow-up you go back and look and see if you have an overrepresentation of any kind of story or voice or region. And then you'd look back to see if there are other films that rose up on their own, but maybe represent a different perspective. And then you balance it out that way. So it's part of the conversation, but for us it really boils down to the individual films, and we end up not having to shuffle [the lineup] around too much after the fact.

If you think about it, what we respond to as programmers is something new that we haven't seen before, so that tends to be from new places and new directors who maybe haven't had an opportunity to have those stories told. It tends to naturally work out the way we want it to.

(From the documentary "Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman," premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

You mention that the First Amendment is a driving principle for the festival. Is that something that's always been more implied that feels a bit more explicit now?

[laughs] I do think the First Amendment right has become a topic of conversation now, and it's always been a vital part of our world and our community. I think it's maybe as important as it has ever been right now.

We've always wanted to give voice to people who maybe weren't being heard. If you look at a project like "Rise," which is in our special events section, it's a series from Vice where they've given indigenous and Native American filmmakers the opportunity to tell their personal story. One of the sections we're showing is about Standing Rock, which is happening right now. And the film is still being finished as we speak.

Giving an opportunity for those voices to be heard on a big scale is something that has always been important to the festival, and because of the timeliness of some of these issues, yeah, I think now as much as ever it's vital.

(From the documentary, "The Force," which premieres at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

You mentioned police violence. Can you think of any specific documentaries that address that issue?

It's interesting, the number of films we saw this year that look at police violence and police corruption. Two come to mind — one is called "Whose Streets," which is set in Ferguson, was made by people from there, and uses subjects who live there to tell their perspective of the killing of Mike Brown and their frustration about the coverage of that story and how incomplete it has been. The documentary actually uses a lot of footage that people shot on their phones, and you get a much more raw, open and honest look at what's happening there.

Another film, which is very different to watch, is called "The Force," which is about the Oakland Police Force as they're undergoing federal reforms. This film is a vérité-style shooting with incredible access, and it starts out where you feel that these reforms are going to have real change and real impact, and you see these good people on the police force who are implementing these changes, and you feel like it can be a case study for everyone moving forward, like, This is how it can be done.

And then, over the course of the filming, it unravels in this really complex way. And the narrative arcs and characters within this make it feel like a fiction story that Scorsese or Michael Mann would've made. But it's real life, and all the more haunting because of that. It's complicated, and I like that it looks at all these people in this situation and it lets the viewers try to wrestle with the ideas in it. It's really an incredible film.

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