WATERVILLE — Leaders of the independent film movement in central Maine say they are excited that actor and filmmaker Robert Redford will be coming to Waterville in May to speak at the Colby College commencement.

Redford, a two-time Academy Award winner, has had a long career as an actor and director, and he has devoted much of his time over the past 30 years to supporting independent film production.

“I can’t think of anyone else who has really embodied the independent film movement the way that Redford has after embodying mainstream Hollywood the way that he has,” said Ken Eisen, founder of the Waterville-based Maine International Film Festival, which presents independent productions at a variety of city venues each summer.

After achieving success as an actor in films such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Barefoot in the Park,” Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981. He also won an Academy Award that year as the director of “Ordinary People” and in 2002 was honored with the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Sundance Institute has been a leading supporter of independent filmmakers. It created the Sundance TV cable channel and sponsors the Sundance Film Festivals, both of which are devoted to productions by independent and emerging artists.

“Over the course of time, although he still does make Hollywood movies, he has broadened his scope in the industry to champion independent films and participate in them and direct them himself,” said Eisen, who is also programming director at the Maine Film Center. The center is based at the Railroad Square Cinema, a nonprofit theater in Waterville that specializes in the exhibition of independent films.

“He’s just spanned decades of filmmaking in a unique and amazing capacity, and having him in Waterville will be a wonderful thing,” Eisen said.

Colby’s commencement is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 24 on the lawn of the college’s Miller Library and is open to the public, according to a news release from the college. Redford’s grandson is a member of the graduating class of 2015.

Colby’s commencement will come just a couple of months before the start of the 2015 Maine International Film Festival. Though he has never attended in person, Redford’s support of independent films has made him an important part of the festival and programming at Railroad Square over the years, according to Eisen and Shannon Haines, executive director at the center.

“We’ve certainly featured his work over the years, although we’ve never done a special section on him at the festival or anything like that — yet,” Haines said.

In 2012, when the film center purchased Railroad Square as the permanent home of the festival, Redford’s film “The Company You Keep” was part of a premiere weekend and was used as an example of the type of film the Maine Film Center hoped to show in the future. The film was directed by Redford and stars him as a single father and former member of the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam War group.

Other films that have been screened over the years include “All the President’s Men” and “All is Lost.”

“I think his most important contribution to cinema has been his Sundance Institute, and not just the film festival, but the support it’s provided for independent filmmakers and especially for theaters that show independent films,” said Steven Wurtzler, associate professor of cinema studies at Colby.

Independent films are defined by the nature of their funding and what companies are distributors as well as the content of the film, including the method of telling the story and the subject matter, Wurtzler said.

“They don’t look and sound like every other film that plays at Flagship,” he said. Redford’s most recent film to play at Railroad Square, “All is Lost,” is an example of an independent film that took a risk by making him the only character, an unnamed man lost at sea, and shooting the entire film in one place, a yacht in the Indian Ocean, Wurtzler said.

“He’s been the most famous, wealthy and powerful spokesman for innovative cinema in the U.S.,” Wurtzler said. “It’s unusual for someone to be so successful at all of the things he’s done. I think a lot of actors try to transition to directing, but few are so successful. A lot of actors are advocates for different issues, but few have been as successful as Redford has.”

Redford’s grandson is one of about 480 students graduating this spring. On campus Tuesday, students were enthusiastic about the commencement choice.

“He’s pretty legendary,” said Colby freshman Peter Barkey-Bircann, of Redford’s presence at commencement. “If I was a senior, I’d be excited.”

Colby junior John Snow noted that it is not unusual for Colby to bring in a nationally recognized figure to speak at commencement.

“I’m not much of a cinema person, but it’s pretty cool that he’s going to be here,” Snow said.

In addition to Redford, five people will receive honorary degrees at the commencement. They are Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner; Deborah Bial, president and founder of the Posse Foundation; Andrew Davis, class of 1985, an arts, education, and environmental philanthropist; Roger W. Ferguson Jr., president and CEO of TIAA-CREF; and Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, filmmaker, and founder of Define American.

With Redford’s commitment to deliver Colby’s commencement address comes the hope from members of the region’s film community that it will help showcase central Maine as a region with a deep appreciation for independent film.

“It’s a happy coincidence, I would say. We consider Waterville to be a hub for independent film in the state. Between the film festival and Railroad Square Cinema and Colby cinema studies, we’re really growing as a center for film,” Haines said. “It’s really exciting to have someone of his caliber here in Waterville to see what’s going on here.”

Morning Sentinel staff writer Peter McGuire contributed to this story.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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