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The Whistler Film Festival and the Sundance ambition

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If you’re Robert Redford, you’re likely accustomed to a life less ordinary.

An icon of the American silver screen, considered by many to be a living legend, Redford has got to have a different set of expectations and results than your average Joe.

You get behind a small, existing Utah film festival in 1981 only to have it grow over the next decades into an international phenomenon, an ever-present mention beside loaded words like Cannes.

Yawn.

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All right. Even the golden boy of American cinema, a star of stars, has got to be impressed – thrilled even – with the stratospheric status trajectory of the Sundance Film Festival. So prominent is Sundance it is now an adjective, a metaphor, a benchmark.

Every festival, no matter how renegade, overtly or covertly longs to hear itself mentioned alongside the Robert Redford of American film festivals. A Sundance comparison functions as an invaluable affirmation.

And so Whistler Film Festival director Shauna Hardy and her crew were rightly tickled when the beloved S-word started floating around their third festival last December. One of Canada’s most acclaimed film scribes, Maclean’s magazine’s Brian D. Johnson, deemed Whistler a "fledgling Sundance," in a piece on eclectic filmmaker Matt Frame – director of Baghdad or Bust, which made its world premiere at Whistler and took Best Documentary honours. Oregon-based director Neal Miller premiered his film Raising Flagg in Whistler in 2003, following which he was quoted using the S-word in Variety.

"Sundance of the North." It has a nice ring. Sounds a bit like a thoroughbred. Definitely a jazzy hook.

As sexy as it sounds however, is it realistic? Booster catchphrases aside, does the four-year-old event have what it takes to become Canada’s answer to Sundance?

Geographically, the shoe fits. Like Sundance headquarters in Park City, Utah, Whistler is a draw based on location alone.

"When I said Whistler is Canada’s fledgling answer to Sundance, it’s an answer to Sundance in the sense that they’re establishing it as a destination in the mountains," Johnson said over the phone from Toronto.

The writer is returning this year and will participate in a tribute to the late Canadian filmmaker Philip Borsos, namesake of a new $10,000 award for Best Canadian Feature Film making its world premiere at the Whistler festival.

"For an industry person like me, going to Whistler is a real treat," Johnson added, "not just for the nature of the destination, but also because it provides for a kind of intimacy that you don’t get in larger festivals."

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