Sporting the revamped tagline "This is the renewed rebellion. This Sundance, reminded," the festival's always-stellar documentary selections most often live up to their astonishing subject matter. This year was no different. First up for me was the controversial 8: The Mormon Proposition by Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet. The film explores the Mormon Church's involvement (and sneaky double-dealings) in the pro-Prop 8 campaign in California, as well as exploring how many Mormon leaders use God's will as a manipulation tatic towards preventing (or in this case, taking away) civil rights. The film's most jaw-dropping revelation, which draws a connection between the persecution of a follower of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and today's struggle for same-sex marriage, will chill your bones with irony.
But while the audience at 8's world premiere gave the film a five-minute standing ovation (the crowd included everyone from Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008's Milk, to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom), the filmmakers make a major misstep by undercutting an otherwise powerful and damning interview from a Mormon leader with gurgling, demon-like sounds and a backdrop cartoon of the man as the devil. This Michael Moore-esque technique of falling prey to "emotional ranting" not only contradicts Sundance director John Cooper's catalog description of the film, but helps shuts down the "conversation" (which both filmmakers stressed numerous times during the Q&A) with people who voted for Prop 8. Unfortunately, this cheap shot lowers the film's credibility and when questioned by an audience member (who had voted for Prop 8) why they had used such tactics as "altering the [Morman man's] voice," the filmmakers quickly became defensive, shouting, "We didn't alter anything!" and "Listen to the words!" When re-questioned, they stated, without a doubt, that they "stood by" how they had presented the information. Where was that conversation again?
Expanding on a six-minute short co-directed by Alfonso Cuaron (2008's Children of Men), The Shock Doctrine (an adaptation of Naomi Klein's book about economist Milton Friedman's "Free Market" idea), is a 79-minute whirlwind of film. Directors Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross disturbingly deconstruct this "marginalized backwater economic theory" and expose it as the main philosophy applied towards many of the U.S. and U.K's current international (mis)handlings. While it may be a simplification in many areas (and filled with George W. Bush and conservative bashing), this doc sheds light on deregulated trading between countries, and how it has had devastating aftereffects on the rest of the world.
Also expanding on a previous short film (2006's A Conversation with Basquiat), Tamra Davis' Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a tightly woven overview of his life combined with poignant interviews with friends and ex-lovers, topped off with very personal footage that Davis herself conducted in the early 1980s. With an outstanding soundtrack of early 80s no-wave tracks as well as classic hip-hop tunes, this tribute is a genuine crowdpleaser for fans and the uninitiated alike.
Leon Gast's Smash His Camera uncovers villified 1970s paparazzo Ron Galella in a deliciously contradictory manner. Exploring the constant battles revolving around privacy rights (claimed by both Galella and his subjects), freedom of the press, and obsession with fame, the film asks viewers to question our own fascination with stars. It raises the revolutionary, contemporary question as to how legit Galella actually might be as an artist. With priceless moments signed and delivered by Galella himself, you may find yourself walking out of the film wanting to scapegoat and demonize an individual for showing us exactly what we are captivated by and are constantly seeking out.
The latest doc from Stanley Nelson' (2006's Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple), Freedom Riders, delivers the type of archival footage that we've forgotten history is made of. Beginning in 1961, if follows a few groups of devoted individuals who were brave enough to take buses into the deepest of the segregated South, with hopes of ending racial discrimination. Nelson's film is a genuine tribute to the audacious and non-violent struggle by protestors who even Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy didn't know how to support. With the current civil rights struggles in the United States, Freedom Riders strikes more than a few heartbreaking chords, making it a must-see.
Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished deconstructs an infamous Nazi-produced documentary about the Warsaw ghetto, incorporating a newly-discovered reel of outtakes and contradictory footage. What was meant to be a document of how happy the Jewish people supposedly were in the ghetto is overwhelmingly exposed as nothing but reenactments and revisionism. The importance of A Film Unfinished goes beyond the subject matter, for it not only examines the misrepresentation of certain historical documents and the long-standing destructive side effects of doing so, but also directly correlates to so many dilemmas we currently have with the delivery of information through cinema, TV, and online media. The film picked up Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, which won the festival's Documentary Grand Jury Prize, chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The visceral footage is quiet, haunting, and surprisingly non-judgemental. Interspersed with interviews with the soldiers after they've returned home from their 15-month outing, the audience gets to experience not just individual journeys, but also the contrasting after effects on the group, post-tour of duty. As Hetherington and Junger spoke after the screening, the revelation of how close they become with the battalion (during the ten trips they made with the soldiers) brought up a valid question about the filmmaker's impartiality. These soldiers saw and did things in Afghanistan they don't seem to understand and I left the theater with the same confusion. Since seeing Restrepo, I haven't been able to stop thinking it.
Christian Frei's Space Tourists follows the spectacular quest of 40-year-old Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American millionaire whose dreams of becoming a space traveler came true. The film does not use narration, allowing its images to connect with the audience as opposed to telling them what and how to feel. This filmmaking choice (reminiscent of documentarian Frederick Wiseman) is risky business nowadays (more than two thirds of the audience filed out of the theater mid-film), but has the possibilty of achieving a transcendental feeling if you stick with it. Watching Ansari live out her fantasies (at a cost of $20 million) in real life, in slow motion on board the space shuttle is truly mesmerizing. But makes Frei's film so profound is his attention to the world below, focusing on people like a gang of junk collectors who survive by scavenging the hills, retrieving the shuttle's segmented remains. How rare that a film can provide so much insight to the world's dichotomies while at the same time exploring (wo)man's final frontier.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's follow-up to their Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), finds them on a corner in Florida: 12th & Delaware. This intersection has a pro-choice abortion clinic on one side of the street -- and on the other, a pro-life pregnancy care center. Using the same techniques as their previous documentary (no narration, very few statistics, and no talking head interviews), Ewing and Grady get astoundingly up close and personal with both centers' employees and clients. Unbiased, respectful, and remarkably candid, 12th & Delaware offers insight and clarity into both sides' passion. While most will leave the theater with the same belief system as they had before going in (though I have to say that I sure believe the other side's dedication a whole lot better now), there's no doubting that this is genuine journalistic cinema at its best.
And finally: Waiting For Superman, Davis Guggenheim's follow-up to his Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), deftly explores the American education system in grueling detail, from the horrifying statistics of "academic sinkholes" and "drop-out factories" that plague our nation to the specific children, parents, and teachers that are caught in the middle. The incredible amount of research, follow-through, and devastating footage that Guggenheim has skillfully combined is enough to open anyone's eyes. The film suggests that while we all are waiting for a Superman figure to come and magically fix it all, every one of us is somehow involved with and affected by this nightmare. Along the way, this apolitical film becomes inspired, accountable, and motivational cinema. Rightfully, it won Sundance's Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.