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Sundance After #MeToo

Photo of Drew Dixon sitting on a couch in front of windows.
Courtesy of "On the Record" film team
Still from "On the Record," a documentary about music executive Drew Dixon's experience with sexual abuse. The film premiered at Sundance this year.

The legacies of the Sundance Film Festival and Harvey Weinstein are deeply entwined. Weinstein made some of his greatest finds at the festival — films such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” — which not only helped establish the festival’s reputation as a top market for independent talent but his own as one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. 

Sundance is also where some of his alleged crimes occurred, and as he faces trial for rape and sexual assault, the relationship between the two has once again entered the spotlight. 

But according to veteran film producer and financier Geralyn Dreyfous — who also founded the Utah Film Center — the crimes that allegedly took place at Sundance were not because festival programmers allowed it to happen. Instead, she said it was an inevitable byproduct of Sundance’s transformation into the country’s largest festival for independent filmmakers. 

“There's only five festivals in the world where you buy films,” Dreyfous said. So with legions of filmmakers, executives and distributors descending on Park City each year to pitch and scout films, it created an environment ripe for the abuse of power.

“The platform exists and bad actors will exploit [it],” Dreyfous said. “So if you're Harvey Weinstein — who used to rule this place — everybody's trying to get [to him] to pitch their next movie.”

But even though abuse has occurred behind the scenes, Dreyfous said Sundance has also been an ally of the #MeToo movement. She said the festival has not only seen cultural changes in recent years — like fewer hotel room meetings and an increased awareness around safety — it’s also been a place where important conversations are launched. 

This year, there are two major films that tackle the culture of abuse. One, ”The Assistant,” follows an entry-level employee at a film company — not unlike that of Weinstein’s — as she wrestles with the workplace culture and becomes an unwitting accomplice in the abuse of others. 

The second is “On the Record,” a documentary about Drew Dixon, the first woman of color to come forward in the #MeToo movement. The abuse she faced shattered her career and personal life. 

Amy Ziering produced and directed the film, along with her longtime filmmaking partner Kirby Dick. It’s one of several films the duo has made that explore sexual misconduct, dating back to “The Invisible War,” a documentary about rampant abuse in the military. 

That film premiered at Sundance in 2012, a time when Ziering said no one was interested in the topic. 

“No one wants to hear women’s stories, no one wants to hear stories about women being raped and most certainly no one wants to hear stories about women being raped in the military,” she was told. “It was a hard pass.” 

Ziering said the festival deserves credit for championing documentaries that ask tough questions, particularly at a time when news outlets are shuttering and corporations consolidate power over streaming services. She said there’s more fear now around challenging mainstream culture, which makes environments like the one fostered at Sundance more important than ever. 

“Unlike when you watch [a film] at home, you have this cluster of people in dialogue about that issue and it’s amplified by the press,” Ziering said. “So you have this leveraging of a film in a way that doesn’t happen when you just push a button on your screen.” 

Both Ziering and Dreyfous said that as festival programmers continue to invite filmmakers from diverse backgrounds with films that center on issues like sexual abuse, the conversation evolves. The #MeToo movement began with a focus on perpetrators, for example, but has since expanded to how workplace culture allows them to persist and the long-lasting effects crimes have on victims. 

The deeper that conversation goes, they said, the more it will help to create real change. 

“It's sort of like mycelium,” Dreyfous said. “It has deep roots and [it’s] far reaching. It’s a very subversive conversation to be having.”

Both “On the Record” and “The Assistant” are playing for the last time Saturday, Feb. 1 in Park City.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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