Skip to main content

Festival Focus: Sundance Film Festival 2008

By Tamara Krinsky

From Jackie Reem Salloum's <em>Slingshot Hip Hop</em>

One of the great things about the Sundance Film Festival is the wide range of nonfiction programming it presents. In the span of ten days, audiences have the opportunity to see documentaries ranging from portrayals of impending environmental doom (Flow: For Love of Water, Fields of Fuel) to commentaries on the state of the nation (I.O.U.S.A.) to personal tales of hardship and heartbreak (Trouble the Water, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo) to studies of artistic luminaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired).

While this variety often makes it impossible to identify one unifying theme or trend, I was struck by the number of documentaries that profile the ways people react when they are pushed up against a wall and left with few choices.

Slingshot Hip Hop looks at the development of the Palestinian hip-hop scene in Gaza and the West Bank. Director Jackie Reem Salloum's film opens with an energetic mix of animation, news footage, explosions and concert videos scratched to music, viscerally injecting the viewer into the rhythm of the film from the very first moment. We meet the members of DAM, the first Palestinian hip-hop group, whose story provides rare insight into what it's like growing up amid poverty and conflict.

Inspired by artists like Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur, DAM, PR (Palestinian Rapperz) and Arapeyat initially use hip-hop as a way to express themselves artistically. Eventually, the music develops from pure entertainment into a non-violent outlet for frustration with the political situation. The lyrics are supported by sections of the film chronicling the rappers' experiences, deepening the meaning for the audience watching the doc.

As songs like "Who's the Terrorist?" are performed, it may strike some as ironic to find the Palestinians embracing an American art form to express what many might view as anti-US sentiment. There is indeed much in the Palestinian hip-hop scene that will feel familiar to American audiences. The uniform is the same: baggy jeans, t-shirts, bandannas and baseball caps. All the groups hope for sold-out concert crowds, and dream of record deals.

The most moving sections of the film are where the artists use their newfound, underground "celebrity" status to support their communities. They encourage younger children to turn to creativity to fight the crushing boredom that weighs down their lives. They challenge kids to look up to musicians, rather than drug dealers, as role models. Pushed up against the wall, the artists of Slingshot Hip Hop are using their music to try to change their future.

Kimberly and Scott Roberts of New Orleans use the camera as their weapon of choice, as they capture their moments of desperation with a $20 camcorder in the heart-breaking Trouble the Water. The intimate, personal tale of Hurricane Katrina combines the couple's footage of actually being in the hurricane with filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's more professional Super-16mm chronicle of the aftermath and interviews shot in 24p digital video and archival news clips.

I had thought that I would be immune to more coverage of the hurricane, but the film is put together so beautifully that I was drawn into the Roberts' fight for survival. From the shaky shots of the floodwaters creeping up the their front porch to their doubts about whether or not to leave New Orleans for good, the film skips the sentimentality and focuses on the Roberts' persistence and drive.

Former drug dealers, Scott and Kimberly experience Katrina as an opportunity to turn their lives around. They save a number of their neighbors and stand up to hopelessness when they realize no help is coming. Kim, an aspiring rap artist, becomes reinvested in her music. Over and over again, we see them take action and press forward when the easier choice would have been to simply give up. The lack of emotional pandering allows the viewer to be genuinely affected--and it was no surprise when Trouble the Water picked up the festival's Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.

Stacy Peralta's Made in America covers the history of the Bloods and the Crips, two of America's most infamous African-American gangs. The film provides a comprehensive record of South Central Los Angeles, touching on everything from the "clubs" that were the precursors of the gangs to the origin of gang signs to the tearful stories of the mothers who have lost their children to violence.

Peralta's hard-hitting, kinetic film is the first that I've seen that provides an understanding of the reasoning behind looting. In candid interviews, current and former gang members talk about the idea that when someone gets the message that their life has no value, property then ceases to have value, as does participation in society. Rioting becomes one of the few ways to be heard and be seen.

Rape and kidnapping become the means for the soldiers of the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to make themselves known. Filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson documents this rape epidemic in HBO Documentary Films' The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, in which she travels to the war zones of eastern Congo to find survivors and soldiers willing to talk about their experiences. The film was awarded a Special Jury Prize.

Jackson herself was gang-raped by three men in Washington, DC at age 25. She uses her own history to earn the trust of the women she interviews, the majority of whom have remained silent about their ordeal out of shame and fear. Jackson overcomes her own terrors when traveling deep into the jungle to interview members of the Congolese army who have committed rape many times over. In one Q&A following a screening, she said, "There was a moment going into the woods with rapists where I just had rivers of sweat going down my legs. But then I thought of the other women and did what I had to do."

One group of soldiers Jackson interviews justifies their rape activity with superstition. They believe that raping a woman will protect them in battle. Even more chilling are the educated militia fighters, who would be doing other things if there were no war. They rape because they are neither well fed nor well paid, and yet they are trained to take. Rape becomes a part of their hunger and perceived privilege.

Throughout the film, Jackson questions the relationship between rape, civil war and greed. According to the film, over $1 million of coltan (a metal used in vital components in cell phones and laptops) is stolen out of the DRC every day. The Congo is one of the largest sources in the world for coltan. Criminal groups encourage the war because the resulting rape and societal instability make smuggling this natural resource much easier for them. I couldn't help but guiltily wonder if my Treo smartphone contained coltan, perhaps the new "blood diamond" of the information age.

Fields of Fuel and Flow: For Love of Water both take a look at the earth's dwindling natural resources, and urge people to take action before the planet reaches a point of no return. Irena Salina's Flow examines the planet's decreasing water resources and sounds the alarm about the dangers of water privatization. She explores the philosophical question of who owns the planet's water through shocking examples of corporate abuse of local water resources, and urges citizens to arm themselves with knowledge so that we are able to protect ourselves.

The film is a straightforward issue-oriented documentary, comprised of interviews, investigative vérité, and stock footage shots of oceans, streams, rain and rivers. Intense and necessary, this film opened my eyes to this frightening aspect of the environmental crisis.

Fields of Fuel documents filmmaker/activist Josh Tickell's personal quest to find an alternative to oil. The film takes a lighter tone, striving to be a Green Super Size Me, in which a charismatic activist who has a different way of looking at things puts himself on the front line for the cause. The environmental primer explores the history of the oil industry, the roles of consumer demand and legislation in enacting change in the auto industry and the possibilities biodiesel fuel offers as an answer.  

The editing sets a spirited, brisk pace, with support from the energetic soundtrack. This is one of the few environmental docs I've seen that explores different solutions, as opposed to just painting a planetary picture of doom and gloom. But ultimately Tickell does his project a disservice by infusing himself into too much of the story. Festival audiences seemed to appreciate this, however, giving Fields of Fuel the Audience Award for Documentary.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine and senior writer/content producer of