In­de­pen­dent films re­flect cul­ture of coun­try

Sun­dance co­founder Van Wa­ge­nen says films con­nect world to dif­fer­ent cul­tures

The Korea Times - - FEATURE - By Kim Ji-soo ja­nee@ktimes.com

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.

Cour­tesy of Univer­sity of Utah Asia cam­pus

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.

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