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Iraq Docs Dominate Sundance

By Tom White

From Patricia Foulkrod's The Ground Truth: After the Killing Fields, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Associated Press

The Sundance Institute kicked off its 25th anniversary celebration with its annual post-Christmas, pre-Oscars Mecca in the Mountains, the Sundance Film Festival. As a perennial second-halfer, I missed the docu-centric parties that dominated the first half. And what a bevy of nonfiction soirees to have missedITVS' 15th anniversary bash, Pat Mitchell's valedictory address at the PBS fete, the Sundance Channel party (the channel turns ten this year) and a host of others. But I arrived just in time for IDA's Park City throwdown with A&E Indie Filmsa suds and sushi affair, well attended by IDA members and supporters and the top brass from A&E.

Then I was off to Who Needs Sleep?, Haskell Wexler and Lisa Leeman's long-awaited investigation into the entertainment industry's fixation on the bottom line at the expense of increasingly dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, in the form of excessively long work hours. Prompted by the death of a colleague, Wexler set out on a journey, querying not only fellow filmmakers, but union representatives, actors and experts in the field of sleep deprivation. As a long-respected artist/activist, he is an engaging on-camera presencecustomarily curmudgeonly, and disarmingly smart in his inquiries, Wexler refrains from being overly polemic. His investigation is leavened with a modicum of humor, but it comes from the point-of-view of both a seasoned veteran and a passionate artist.

While labor issues in Hollywood got the treatment, so did the ratings system, in Kirby Dick's hilariously naughty This Film is Not Yet Rated. Taking as a premise that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is a byzantine Valhalla whose ratings system is just as arcane and confounding, Dick carves out his own Moore-ish path, talking to filmmakers, lawyers, indie moguls and even some former ratings board members, uncovering the hypocrisy and absurdity that often drives the criteria between an R rating and an NC-17. Supplementing the film with artful graphics and well-placed film clips, Dick himself ups the investigative ante, hiring two private detectives to stake out and identify the ratings board members, and then, in a touch of post-modern derring-do, submitting his film-in-progressthe film that we're watchingto the MPAA for a rating.

In what could work as an interesting pairing with Who Needs Sleep?, Alan Berliner's Wide Awake takes a formally adventurous exploration into his own insomnia. Berliner talks to some of the same experts that Wexler sought out, but complements their expertise with a dazzling panoply of found footage, home movies, stills and loopy on-camera musings about his condition, and the prospect of giving up the most creatively fertile period for himwhen everyone else is asleepfor the sake of his newborn child.

Documenting one's own neurosis is quite different from documenting someone's else's neurological conditionwhich is what Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher did over the course of five years. Jordan and Ascher were last at Sundance 10 years ago, when their Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern took both the Audience Award and the Jury Prize. Jordan's father died of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) shortly after that film, which inspired the couple to follow the Heywood family as they cope with the gradual deterioration of their son, Steven. Filmed over five years, So Much So Fast captures this decline step by painful step. But Steven maintains a resolve and willand a serenitythat is almost superhuman. However, this is more than a story of one person's struggle; Steven's brother Jamie takes on his cause, forming a nonprofit organization to try to find a cure for ALS. Jamie's single-minded quest costs him his marriage and almost his business. These parallel narratives underscore the sacrifices that families will make to stave off a potentially devastating loss.

Loss and love course through A Lion in the House, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's epic journey that follows five families, each of which has a young child struggling with cancer. The filmmakers were invited to make this film by the chief oncologist at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital and, having had their own child survive cancer, Reichert and Bognar accepted his offer. Afforded extraordinary access to the hospital staff, the patients and their families, the filmmakers produced a work that is compassionate, noble and deeply affecting. Reichert and Bognar were at Sundance in 1996 with a film when they found out that their daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. As cruel irony would have it, exactly ten years later, Reichert herself got a call in Park City informing her that she had lymphoma.

Not to ratchet up the gloom, but the war in Iraq continues to provide compelling inspiration for docmakers to examine the conflict from different angles. Patricia Foulkrod's The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends looks at the experience of soldiers coming home from the horror of war, bearing the physical, psychic and emotional wounds that we don't hear about from the media. Foulkrod blends battlefront footage that was shot by embedded filmmakers with wrenching recollections and testimonies by obviously scarred veterans.

Foulkrod participated in a panel on "Documentary and War," moderated by Nick Fraser of the BBC. With her on the panel were Heidi Specogna, maker of The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez, about the first US soldier to die in the war; James Longley, maker of Iraq in Fragments, the result of his two years in Iraq documenting the perspectives of Iraqi citizens; and Rex Bloomstein, whose KZ looks at the impact of the presence of a Nazi concentration camp on visitors, tour guides and residents of the Austrian town of Mauthausen.

All filmmakers took new paths in trying to understand the ramifications of war. While Fraser contended that her film was "extremely angry," Foulkrod disagreed, maintaining that she wanted to make a film about how we treat our soldiers, how training has become a dehumanizing process. "I felt like a monster," says one of the veterans in the film. Specogna set out to retrace the life of an unknown soldier, who was mentioned in the newspaper after his death, the media simply left him behind and moved on. Longley was compelled to take his journey because, "we look at everything from a US-centric perspective." Bloomstein, covering a different, more documented war, nevertheless sought to "move the holocaust documentary into a new area," without music or commentary from historians and survivors, making the viewer feel like a visitor to a dispiriting representation of a dark history.

Fifteen films were submitted to Sundance about Iraq, and Iraq in Fragments earned three awards: the Documentary Directing Award and Excellence in Cinematography Award to Longley, and the newly introduced Excellence in Documentary Editing Award to Longley and Billy McMillin and Fiona Otway.