Robert Redford: Protecting free expression by giving voice to the voiceless

Monday, June 4, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — To actor, filmmaker and environmental activist Robert Redford, the First Amendment not only protects U.S. democracy, but it also helps define who Americans are as a people.

“The freedom of speech basically is something that shapes our nation,” Redford said. And “free expression, (particularly) artistic expression, is really something that’s an important pulse for our society. … I think we would all agree we can’t afford to lose it.”

Redford spoke June 2 as he received the 2001 Freedom in Film award presented by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Nashville Independent Film Festival. Redford was honored for his work as an actor, producer and director of films that have promoted dialogue and change, and for his outspoken advocacy for independent filmmakers.

Earlier in the day, Redford also spoke about his work during a taping of the center’s weekly television program, “Speaking Freely.”

For Redford, preserving free expression means giving voice to the voiceless. His passion for protecting the independent film, he says, stems from this belief.

In the late 1970s, Redford said, he became concerned when he saw story- and character-driven films being replaced by commercial, high-budget ones. “What used to be more diverse filmmaking in the ’70s was starting to erode,” Redford said during the awards program. He said the industry, instead, became dominated by films made to fit a corporate formula, under which movies had to target young people and include “enough explosions or sex or violence or slapstick comedy.”

“That’s fine, that’s part of the industry as well,” Redford said, “but that part of the industry, I felt, should not be at the expense of the other part, which keeps diversity alive.”

Two decades ago, in an effort to preserve that diversity, Redford set out to “put a mechanism in place to help (independent) filmmakers improve their skills so that their voices would be heard.”

What arose from Redford’s efforts was the Sundance Institute.

On its Web site, Sundance describes itself as a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the support and development of emerging screenwriters and directors of vision, and to the national and international exhibition of new, independent dramatic and documentary films.”

The institute sponsors laboratories and workshops for writers, composers, directors and others involved in filmmaking. Its annual Sundance Film Festival attracts more than 20,000 attendees each year.

Redford has also launched the Sundance Channel, a joint venture with Showtime Networks Inc. and Universal Studios, and the theater chain Sundance Cinemas to provide independent artists with wider opportunities to present their works.

“The issue is (for filmmakers to) be able to make films that are not governed by corporate control,” Redford said. “There’s such a formula these days for what is going to be commercial that they (filmmakers) get confused. And we (at Sundance) try to help them with that by encouraging them to stay true to their own visions.”

Free expression is not the only First Amendment freedom that Redford champions. Redford said he starred in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” in which he and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the reporters who broke open the Watergate scandal, because of his respect for freedom of the press.

“I was so taken with how close we came to losing the First Amendment with that particular (presidential) administration and the direction that it was going at that time that I felt I wanted out of gratitude … to make a dramatic film that basically celebrated the importance of investigative journalism,” he said.

“There was such a violation not only of the public trust, but literally a constitutional violation that was being lied about or disguised. And what chance did the public have other than the media reporting on it?”

Redford has always viewed the news media, particularly newspapers, as “safeguards for the truth.” But, he said, he is concerned about the recent trend of some newspapers to print rumor as fact, calling it “an abrogation of a responsibility to the public trust.”

Although there are some responsible journalists and publications, he said, they are up against “a terrific negative force of corporate takeover,” which will affect which stories are reported and leave the people as the victims.

But in all, Redford says, it is the public’s and the press’s responsibility to protect the First Amendment and the freedoms that Americans hold dear.

“It would be indeed unfortunate if we weren’t paying attention or we were looking at something else and we didn’t recognize that something so valuable, that has such power to it, that is ours, that other people long for and die for, wouldn’t be sustained.”

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