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A substantial number of nonfiction films make a showing annually at the Sundance Film Festival. There are two competitive categories, for U.S. and World documentaries, as well as a documentary premieres section, which mirrors the dramatic feature premiere part of the festival. And once in a while, a documentary might sneak into the Next or Frontiers areas of Sundance.
Many of the films in the Documentary Premiere section hit on hot-button topics. Alex Gibney, know for sharp investigative filmmaking (he’s shone light on clerical pedophilia in the Catholic Church, grand scale corrupt corporate greed, scandals in politics and sports, the war on terror and more), looks at the secretive but ultra-powerful world of the Church of Scientology in his hard-hitting film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. While he hit hard, Scientology hit back. They continue to do all they can to disparage Gibney.
Other films made a big impact, including 3 ½ Minutes in the competition. In 2012 a young man of color was shot to death by a white man in the parking lot of a Florida gas station. Filmmaker Marc Silver covered the trials that ensued and exposes the continued cracks in our criminal justice system, as well as the ongoing racism in the U.S. that we cannot get rid of. This film won a special jury award for social impact.
Also winning awards (for cinematography and directing) and also focusing on social justice was Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, about the border wars with drug lords. And brothers Bill and Turner Ross won another special award for verité filmmaking for Western, their portrait of small towns on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border.
Crystal Moselle won the Grand Jury prize for Wolfpack, her strange but true portrait of a family whose children have been locked in a housing project. Their only contact with life seems to be movies, and so they act accordingly, becoming true indie filmmakers themselves. How she managed to make this film – and to get the children to trust her – could be a film in itself.
Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary Meru won the audience award for its stunning look at a Himalayan climbing expedition. (It would be a crime for a film about nature in all its glory not to be beautiful.) Laura Gabbert didn’t win anything for City of Gold, her look at L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold. But her brilliant study of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer goes beyond food and cultural criticism and speaks to the importance of the critic in the social fabric of our world.
While much attention is paid to the U.S. doc competition, the films in the World documentary section have a better chance of being noticed than the international features in the World dramatic competition. There’s always a chance that the compelling subject matter in a film will draw viewers’ attention.
Sembene! is a strong and moving look at the life and work of the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene. Directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman show his rise from immigrant dockworker to filmmaker. Sembene’s successful struggle is a grand tale, and not just a biography of the man, but the history of African cinema.
Listen to Me Marlon is another artist’s biography, but told from a unique perspective. Filmmaker Stevan Riley used unfettered access to Brando’s audio archives to allow the late cinematic icon to tell his own story. The film plays out like an investigation by the subject himself. Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker, which won the World Documentary jury award, is also an investigation. In this case it is the Chernobyl disaster. This time the investigator is one of the victims of the nuclear accident and his investigation includes a conspiracy theory that could very well be real.
At one point, The Russian Woodpecker turns into a political thriller, as does The Amina Profile. Sophie Deraspe’s documentary doesn’t so much expose the truth about the Gay Girl in Damascus blogger (pretty much everyone knew that already), as expose the dangers and costs – political as well as personal – that still exist on the internet.
After all the dark themes and suspenseful stories, turns out the winner of the audience award for international documentary was Dark Horse, a charming story of English working-class neighbors who take on the “sport of kings” and purchase a race horse. Their journey is inspiring, which would make someone like me turn away. But in the end the film is a fascinating group character study. And fascination is at the heart of the Sundance nonfiction films.
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