January 25, 2010

Krinsky at Sundance: 1/24 - Tillman, SAG and Women in Film

Sunday was jam packed with documentary activities, both social and cinematic. I began the day with The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev's exploration of the life and death of NFL player Pat Tillman. A star safety with the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman turned down a lucrative renewal contract to enlist in the U.S. Army in 2002.

He served multiple tours with the Army Rangers before he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. The U.S. government lied about the cause of his death, saying that he had single-handedly saved the lives of dozens of men during an ambush in the mountains of Afghanistan, sacrificing his own life for the safety of his comrades. Outraged, his family sought to bring to light the real story behind Pat's death, including exposing those responsible at the highest levels of command.

Bar-Lev's film left myself and those with whom I exited the theater wanting to punch the government, for lack of a more eloquent phrase. But we weren't in the mood to be eloquent - were were pissed!  While the friendly fire incident was unfortunate and sad, you don't blame the soldiers who were responsible (in fact, though the film attempts to reconstruct the incident, ultimately, it's still guesswork as to what really happened). Rather, the anger we all felt was directed at the U.S. government, who sought to turn Tillman's death into a propaganda tool. 

Mary, Pat's mother,  is a force to be reckoned with, providing the emotional heart of the film. In a particularly poignant moment, she expresses how horrible it is that the military would take a young man with honorable intentions who served his country and lie about how he died in order to promote a war.

A clip from The Tillman Story

In the attempt to get to the truth, Mary plows through over 3000 pages of material, trying to fill in the blanks of the redacted documents and figure out what really happened. Another indication that the cover up reached beyond Tillman's unit: the fact that his body armor, diary and helmet were all destroyed - something that would have needed approval from above.

In April 2005, Patrick Tillman, Sr. (Pat's father) writes a letter to military investigators accusing them of white watching the facts and ending with a lovely suggestion to fuck off. This letter was taken as an official accusation of criminal activity and forwarded to the Department of Defense, which initiates an investigation in to the Army's handling of the Tillman incident. The blame finally - conveniently - falls on a general, who just happens to be newly retired.

Eventually, Tillman's family discovers a leaked memo from General Stanely McChrystal that proves that the entire chain of command knew about the cover up and were concerned about the effect Tillman's death might have on the morale of the war effort. The memo allows them to go beyond the military to Congress for a hearing, which involves a lot of officials uttering the phrase "I don't recall."

Towards the end of the film, a defeated, frustrated Mary says, "There's not much else that can be done." But this is where Bar-Lev's documentary comes in. The Tillman family's prime motivation in clearing up the real story around Pat was to make sure the world was left with an accurate picture of him, not one constructed by government propaganda. The Tillman Story allows them to do so. The film was picked up for distribution by The Weinstein Company. 

After such an intense morning, I needed to chill out for a bit. Luckily, the SAG Actor's Brunch, held at Cafe Terigo on Main Street, provided just such an opportunity. As attendees traded film reviews over fruit and spicy egg casserole, I caught up with my WGAW colleague Kay Schaber Wolf. Yep, for those of you who don't know, I recently started a new gig at the Writers Guild of America West. They've created new position to keep track of New Media. I'll be focusing on original online content, tracking both creative and business developments in the space.

I then briefly stopped by the Women In Film brunch, where I nibbled on a few more tasty treats (thank goodness for the uphill walk on Main St. or else I'd come home from Sundance a lot bigger than I started!). The brunch featured a panel, "Choosing Artistic Freedom: How Singular Vision Can Lead to Heroic Filmmaking" with a stellar array of filmmakers, including producer Lesley Chilcott (Waiting for Superman), Liz Garbus (producer, A Family Affair), Laurens Grant (producer, Freedom Riders), Patti Lee (DP/producer, A Small Act), Laura Poitras (director/producer/DP, The Oath), and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program's Cara Mertes (executive producer, Stories of Change, including To Catch A Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America).


Women in Film assembles a stellar collection of documentarians

During the brunch, WIF presented the Women In Film/National Geographic All Roads Film Grant to director Jennifer Arnold and Patti Lee for their work on A Small Act. The award recognizes a deserving female documentarian in the Sundance Film Festival Program, and includes $5000.

Jill Miller, Managing Director, Sundance Institute said in a statement, "Women make up a major part of the talent in independent documentary, and increasingly have important contributions in fiction filmmaking. We love the inspiration and encouragement for women storytellers that this panel and the awards highlight every year."

Sadly, I could not stay for much of the panel, as I had to skedaddle back to the Holiday Village theaters to catch a press screening of Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money. For more on the film, see my Doc Shot with Gibney and my colleague Tom White's write up on the film.