Sundance Institute recognized the power of the independent film community when it honored the memory of longtime supporter Roger Ebert and up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler at its annual Celebrate Sundance Institute: Los Angeles Benefit on June 5 at Hollywood’s Lot studios.
“At Sundance, we really believe that independent voices enrich the culture and open our minds to perspectives that we may not immediately recognize,” said the Institute’s Keri Putnam. “The idea of stories that are told by people who aren’t in the mainstream of society and are coming from different perspectives and different angles and different communities, where would we be without them?”
Robert Redford honored Ebert, who had championed the Institute’s annual film festival since its early days, by bestowing the late critic’s wife, Chaz Ebert, with the Vanguard Leadership Award. Sundance has also started the Roger Ebert Scholarship Fund to support new film critics.
“Roger had that skill where he talked to the audience of the people,” Redford said. “He was not elitest … and he did it with great skill and generosity.”
Redford also talked about Ebert’s professionalism when it came to his reviews, saying that “in terms of my personal career, he was very much his own guy. In other words, just because we knew each other doesn’t mean I was going to get any favors.”
A film Ebert did appreciate was Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” which recounted the death of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old who was killed in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. Kerry Washington presented the helmer with the Sundance Institute Vanguard Award.
“This was a story that was very important to me and to my community,” said Coogler, who was raised in Oakland.
Since last year’s Vanguard Award went to Benh Zeitlin, who directed the Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Coogler was asked if he thinks lightning will strike twice?
“I really don’t try to focus on awards or anything like that,” Coogler said laughing. “The biggest thing to me was to get the story told. And all the things that come with it are the biggest surprise to me as they are to anybody.”