Independent films reflect culture of country
Sundance cofounder Van Wagenen says films connect world to different cultures
When Sterling Van Wagenen cofounded the Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford more than 30 years ago, he felt that they were starting a revolution.
“What we started to see in the 1970s were young talented filmmakers telling stories, not telling Hollywood-type stories, but they were telling stories about their own regions of the country,” Van Wagenen said. They portrayed the different cultures of the south, east and west of America.
“That’s what sparked our interest in terms of starting the film festival to showcase those movies,” said Van Wagenen, who is currently the producer-in-residence at the University of Utah. “In that sense, we felt that we were creating something of a revolution.”
The award-winning producer was in Korea for the first time to meet and speak with film students at the University of Utah Asia Campus and to attend the 20th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). While the Sundance Film Festival has grown significantly since its beginnings in 1985, it continues to emphasize independent films.
“Independent films really touch the culture of the country,” he said. “It makes the culture of the country visible both to itself and to the outside world,” he said.
He noted that Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s work, both the big pictures and the smaller, human-interest films such as “Coming Home,” allows the world to connect with Chinese culture.
He also cited the Korean film “Tale of Two Sisters” (2003) by director Kim Jee-woon, as an example of the significant cultural role of movies.
“There obviously is a wealth of Korean folklore, mythology and folk tales that your filmmakers are still drawing from. There is a connection between the deeper culture of Korea and Korean horror films,” he said.
Van Wagenen said a country’s social and political turbulence, as much as its culture, can help the film industry flourish, as in Korea; the United States during the McCarthy era, when socially conscious movies emerged in the late 1940s and early1950s; in Italy after World War II, when neo-realist movies were made; and in Germany after World War I.
Politics also comes into play at film festivals. The Sundance experienced some tension when Hollywood began showing interest in Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989), which was a commercial success.
“There is always politics around film festivals, because there seem to be so much at stake for filmmakers who show their work,” Van Wagenen said. “Robert Redford has to get the credit for maintaining the integrity (of the Sundance Film Festival) ... He has always seen himself as a Hollywood outsider, as a maverick in the Hollywood system.”
Van Wagenen said his own naivete, his belief in the purity of showcasing films, also helped maintain the festival’s integrity.
Referring to the recent challenges of BIFF, including the change in leadership and the boycott of the festival by some filmmakers, he urged the festival’s managers to remain true to the festival’s vision.
“The Busan Film Festival managers should have to, in some way, maintain the integrity of the festival in spite of government or business influence,” he said.
Raised as an only child on a farm in Utah, Van Wagenen said he chose films because he grew up with them.
“I loved putting on a mask, to look at different lifestyles, different worlds, through the lens of the camera,” he said.
Among the many professional hats he wears — producer, writer, director — Van Wagenen said he considers himself a producer foremost. Asked what the key to his success as a producer, whose job is about putting the pieces together, was he said he has been told that he is a “good collaborator.”
He works closely with writers such as the late Horton Foote, with whom he worked on the Academy-award winning “Trip to Bountiful.” “The successful screenwriters I have known write, they say, because they have to. It is kind of a necessity for them in order to discover who they are.”
He said he is watching with interest such Korean directors as Bong Joon-ho, who made “The Host” (2006) and “Snowpiercer” (2013). He also watched the Korean zombie movie by director Yeon Sang-ho, “Train to Busan” (2016).
“I wondered about the message of the film, the train full of people, one zombie boards the train and affects the entire train and the only survivors are the pregnant woman and a little girl. It felt to me like a yearning for innocence of Korean society,” he said.
On Wednesday, he delivered a lecture on storytelling to students at the University of Utah Asia Campus, which launched its film program this year. He looks forward to further interacting with students at the university.
“I want to tell them they are all storytellers. You just need the discipline to put it in a form that people will want to see.”
Independent films make the culture of the country visible both to itself and to the outside world.
Sterling Van Wagenen, producer and cofounder of Sundance Film Festival, poses at the University of Utah Asia campus. He was recently in Korea for new film program at the University of Utah Asia campus and to attend the 20th Busan International Film Festival.