Green Lights: The Redford Center and Sundance’s “The New Climate” Provide Support for Environmentalist Film

Climate activists, rejoice: new support systems for environmentalist filmmaking are sprouting up, and there’s one name behind the curtain—Redford.

The Sundance Kid has long advocated for various social causes, but he and his teams have recently stepped up their efforts on behalf of the planet in particular.

Take The Redford Center, a nonprofit company Redford and his children founded in 2005 that produces environmental impact films and engagement campaigns. In 2016, to augment its creative efforts and fiscal sponsorship, the Center launched its very first grant program for innovative environmental films in development, handing out $15,000, mentorship, gear and distribution to grantees. From 282 applications, six winning projects (with 11 filmmakers, from first-timers to veterans) were picked to attend a December summit at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Provo, Utah.

Executive Director Jill Tidman says she looked for the human factor when dealing with climate—moviemakers who are “making films more personal, relatable and entertaining, and laying out some solutions. Recent decades have brought home important exposé work that rang the alarm bells, but the average person needs help with solutions; they need stories that protect and deepen their hope too.”

Tidman describes the Center as a “matchmaker.” Her team gathers what they call “stakeholders”—“change agents, experts, philanthropists, artists, scientists, educators, policy experts and innovators”—who push for direct action; while the films prime the audience, the stakeholders orchestrate the follow-up. The results can be impressively tangible: the Center’s 2012 film Watershed, for example, supported five nonprofits in the U.S. and Mexico working to restore the Colorado River Delta with an impact campaign called Raise the River that’s raised over $10 million.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Hoping to enact that kind of change themselves are the 14 feature documentary, short and Virtual Reality titles in Sundance’s “The New Climate” section, which debuts at the 2017 festival, representing the first time a Sundance program has been designed around a specific cause. By far the highest profile in the selection is An Inconvenient Sequel, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s follow-up to the groundbreaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim’s Al Gore-starrer which premiered at the 2006 fest). Gore himself will be in Park City for the festival’s Power of Story panel, a collaboration between The Redford Center and Sundance Institute.

Why was 2017 ripe for “The New Climate?” Because, Sundance programmer Hussain Currimbhoy says, we’ve found ourselves at a turning point. “In the past few years, a lot of films about the environment and climate change exhibited worst-case scenarios, or climate change in progress. Now we are seeing films that are showing us the results of climate change. This moment is crucial—the climate has already changed all over the world.”

The “New Climate” picks are varied: The feature portion sees titles like Marina Zenovich’s Water & Power: A California Heist, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s hunting doc Trophy and Jiu-liang Wang’s Plastic China; there’s Rise, an immersive documentary series by Michelle Latimer centered on indigenous resistance, and Jeff Orlowski’s one-two punch Chasing Coral, which is both a feature doc and a VR experience.

VR, says Currimbhoy, “has its own unique way of putting you inside the story, offering a much richer context from which to understand the gravity of our new reality.” Of course, those looking for an immersive experience could do worse than Park City itself—a leader in environmental planning. (“Park City will be carbon-neutral by 2022,” points out Currimbhoy. “The only city with a more ambitious program is Copenhagen.”)

Jiu-liang Wang’s Plastic China, a “New Climate” title. Courtesy of Sundance Institute / Photograph by Jiu-liang Wang

When asked if “New Climate” will become a permanent addition to the festival, Currimbhoy says he hopes it won’t have to be. For now, though, he says it belies a responsibility that moviemakers today have: “to go beyond the hyperbole, the one-liners and the status quo… to go where the media and our culture is afraid to go, and share with us a deeper understanding of our own connectivity to our environment, because it seems we may have forgotten it.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2017 issue.

Top image: Redford Center Executive Director Jill Tidman and co-founder Robert Redford at the nonprofit’s inaugural Storytelling Summit at Sundance Mountain Resort. Photograph by Lou Bopp

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