How enthusiastic is Robert Redford about this year's United States Film Festival in Park City?

So enthusiastic that he volunteered to talk to the press to help promote it."I should knock on wood saying this," he says at the conclusion of the interview, "but I have a hunch this is going to be the best year ever."

OK, we've heard that before, but let's face it - the United States Film Festival is set apart from the many other film festivals around the world because it helps keep the spirit of independent filmmaking alive.

"We don't want to be just another Hollywood festival - they're all over the map," Redford explained. "Here, the independent filmmakers are the stars, not the visiting celebrities. This year there is more emphasis on the filmmakers. There are not as many premieres of Hollywood films, and we're much stronger on the competition."

In keeping with his reputation as someone who never arrives anywhere on time Redford was 45 minutes late for our little chat - and it was a telephone interview!

But that's OK. When Robert Redford is willing to talk, film critics are more than willing to listen.

The film festival, sponsored by Redford's Sundance Institute, kicks off next Friday (Jan. 20) in Salt Lake City as David Newman conducts the Utah Symphony in a performance of his original score for the 1927 silent classic "Sunrise," which will be shown with a brand-new 35mm print in Symphony Hall.

On Saturday the festival shifts to Park City, where some 70 movies will be shown, including several outside of the independent competition that represent a personal stake for Redford: A Latin American series, a Soviet film and a documentary that marks the first actual production to come directly from the Sundance Institute.

Redford is very excited about the seven Latin American films in the "Dangerous Loves" section, all based on stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who also had a hand in each screenplay. Marquez himself will not be in attendance, however. "We almost lost him last year," Redford says. "He hates the cold. He said, `I'll come back, but about two months later, if you please.' "

Many of the Latin American filmmakers will be at the festival, however, which in itself presented some unique problems to Sundance. "Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and Spain - all will be represented here.

"For the first time ever we cleared five visas from Cuba to bring these filmmakers in, and they have no warm clothing of their own. They've never been in cold weather, so we had to provide winter clothes for them."

In addition to providing a showcase for movies that might otherwise never be seen in this country, Redford said he also hopes the Latin films offer a lesson to American filmmakers. "Our industry is getting quite formula oriented, very pyrotechnic oriented. I'd like to see the humanitarian aspect of film kept alive, and the Latin American filmmakers do that.

"So much of their work has to do with political and social oppression and it has power to it. They have little to work with and use incredible resourcefulness. There are chances being taken, great flights of imagination and mythology."

Another film to be shown is from a very different part of the world, "Solovki Rule," a Soviet documentary about concentration camps under Stalin. Filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya will also be in attendance to discuss her film.

"That came out of the May (1988) trip to the Soviet Union (wherein Redford became the first American filmmaker to display a public retrospective of his films).

"Out of this whole experience some pretty exciting things happened. We developed a relationship and signed an agreement to start an exchange program as part of the whole glasnost thing. It's between the Soviet Union and Sundance _ specifically Sundance, not America _ because there's a lot of that going on, from chess to pingpong and everything else. But this has some teeth in it, an actual program to send one of our filmmakers there and they will send someone here.

"With the Latins it's a little different. It's much more functional. The (Soviet film exchange) is exchanging views, but the Latin program is much more _ helping them with their own skills."

The documentary produced by Sundance is "Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven," a 58-minute film by Jon Else that lists Redford as executive producer and which he narrates.

"This is the first time Sundance has entered the field of documentaries," Redford said. "And we've never actually produced anything."

Sundance is a non-profit organization and therefore, through its summer labs, helps filmmakers develop material but stays away from the production end. "For years I've been feeling that we've probably been missing an opportunity to offer filmmakers some kind of employment, and the documentary field is a rich one _ and will be richer in coming years. We want to elevate the experience so it is not just straight education as much as the emotional experience around it."

Redford said this is not his first stab at documentary filmmaking, however. Back in 1969, right after he made "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Redford was approached by state officials to make a movie about Utah. And he did.

So why haven't you ever seen it, you ask?

"It was too advanced. They wanted to know why I showed so much space as an attraction, and I said I wanted to attract people to Utah by showing the space _ to tell the truth. We're not industry-related and I wanted to show the beauty of the natural scenery, the lifestyle opportunities, the recreational facilities.

"They shelved it."

As for his current career, Redford said he is now actively looking for a project in which to act, and said a film may come together very soon with director Sydney Pollack ("Out of Africa," "Tootsie").

Meanwhile Redford is preparing to direct "A River Runs Through It," based on a novel about a Scottish immigrant family in Montana. And he is developing a film series to be based on Tony Hillerman's novels about a Navajo tribal detective. When the first two films are prepared, Redford will direct one and produce one.