Art and Experience: “Missionaries,” Robert Redford replied to a question from the crowd at the Sundance Film Festival’s opening day press conference about what’s kept him, and the festival he founded, in Utah all these years.

The response received the laughter Redford intended, but many of his and fellow panelists John Cooper and Keri Putnam’s comments betrayed a grain of earnestness in the offhand remark.

Pressed on Sundance’s potential role in expanding diversity in an industry bedeviled again this year by controversy over its predominantly white Oscar nominees, both Redford and Putnam, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute, insisted that political advocacy is not the purpose of the institute or the festival. The purpose, rather, Redford said, has always been “to put a spotlight” on issues that are important to the artists. Diversity is an inherent quality of independence, so “[i]f you’re independent minded, you’re going to do things different from the common form, and you’re going to have more diverse products.”

As he seems wont to do at this event, Redford spoke often about history, his own and the festival’s, and how the former has largely shaped his vision for the latter. He noted that many of what have become signature elements of the festival began either with his own personal interests—as was the case with the promotion of documentary films in the late 1980s and early ’90s—or from significant changes in the culture, such as new opportunities for foreign filmmakers to present their work abroad. Sundance, Redford said, has always been about giving artists a place to show their work. Any focus on politics or aesthetics starts there, in powerfully told stories, not in the festival’s administrative offices.

Cooper, the festival’s director, noted that what distinguishes Sundance from the hundreds of other local and regional independent festivals that have risen in its wake, is its broad emphasis on new voices, citing the 103 world premieres that will take place over the next several days, as well as outreach efforts to young viewers he hopes will “build a new future” as filmmakers and audience members. Sundance, he said, is “a discovery festival.”

Which maybe brings us back to missionaries. While some may lament the oily scent of the Business that lingers in Main Street’s otherwise crisp air—the scent, too, of innovation-killing status quo—the festival has nevertheless done a consistently remarkable job of “expand[ing] the categories” and “giv[ing] audiences more options,” in Redford’s words, opportunities to see work they may never see again, to see the world, and storytelling, in ways they’d not yet imagined.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the New Frontier section, which will present a wide range of visual experiences, many of them VR, in three locations around Park City. While it was noted that VR technology tends to isolate viewers in a one-on-one encounter with media—unlike the more traditional, community-building, film-going experience shared by all those lovely people in the dark—the panel remained optimistic that exploring new technologies’ potentials for storytelling is as essential to the festival’s mission, to its filmmakers’ missions, as any of their other efforts at pushing forms into the future.