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Nonfiction Flourishes at Subdued Sundance

By Tom White

From <em>Amandla! a revolution in four part harmony</em>, winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary and the Freedom of Expression Award.

Sundance 2002 was a relatively sober affair, in the wake of 9/11 and in the midst of a recession—fewer parties, less swag, more security. Even the sponsors went for simplicity over splash. But docs continue to thrive above it all, with founder Robert Redford announcing at the get-go plans for a Sundance Documentary Channel. The House of Docs, in its third year, continued to flout its presence and prowess as a nonfiction Woodstock, with the most prominent names behind the camera—makers, producers, distributors, programmers, commissioning editors—assembled for ten days of confabs and klatches.

One panel, “The International Scene,” featured Jan Rofecamp from Films Transit, Ally Derks of International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam, Nick Fraser of the BBC, Anne-Mette Hoffmann Meyer of TV 2 in Denmark and Catherine Olsen of CBC Newsworld in Canada. In addressing the predominantly American audience, commissioning editors Fraser, Meyer and Olsen cited works like, Southern Comfort, Hoop Dreams and Waco: The Rules of Engagement as films that translated well to European audiences; US docs comprised as much as 50 percent of the programming on CBC Newsworld, and 36 percent in Frazier’s domain at the BBC. Frazier in particular observed that in his own backyeard of filmmaking, “Europeans are not ruthless enough in pursuing documentary truth.” He called for less of both “navel-gazing documentaries” and “global corporate style” and more “bravery” and the “Mark Twain tradition of muckraking journalism.” Conversely, the panel also called for American broadcasters to show more non-English language documentaries.

And of course, there were the films at Sundance. AMANDLA! a revolution in four part harmony chronicles the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa through the words and music of some of the greatest voices and musical visionaries of the past 50 years. Director Lee Hirsch, a veteran of music videos, spent nearly ten years on this project, along with producer Sherry Simpson. They take us through history, decade by decade, always keeping our senses tuned to the power of music in fueling the struggle for liberation. It’s an exhilarating ride—one that would certainly call for a similar celebration of the music that propelled the American Civil Rights movement. AMANDLA! won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and the Freedom of Expression Award.

One controversial figure from the African-American experience was writer Ralph Ellison, the subject of Lane Kirkland’s Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. Ellison’s Invisible Man (1948), the monumental novel about Black identify and self, propelled African-American literature to new heights, captured an National Book Award, and gained for Ellison a celebrity among black and white audiences alike. But with fame came backlash, and against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s, Ellison’s Eurocentric aestheticism and his seeming reluctance to embrace the more progressive and confrontational elements of the Black movement into his art caused him to fall out of favor. Although he continued writing and publishing, he didn’t recover his renown until his later years. Kirkland traces this journey of a writer with a pastiche of strategies—dramatizations from Invisible Man and from an earlier short story; footage of Ellison himself; and commentary from Ellison’s supporters and detractors, including Amira Baraka, Cornel West and Albert Murray. In the end, Kirkland succeeds in accessing the mind of a writer and the heart and soul of an often maligned man.

Literary figures pose their own challenges as subjects of documentaries, as do philosophers. Jacques Derrida, the French literary theorist and semiotician, is the wily subject of Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring Kofman’s Derrida. A man who has dedicated his mind to deconstructionist thinking is bound to question the meaning of being filmed. And he does, continuously, confounding the filmmakers into breaking the fourth wall and chucking the rules of vérité altogether. Eventually, the filmmakers themselves appear on camera, filming Derrida watching outtakes of himself from a previous scene in the film. Throughout, we’re treated to lectures as well as voiceovers of Derrida reading from his work. Kofman and Dick follow him from lecture to lecture--in Paris, New York,and South Africa--getting his story on film, but undoubtedly reflecting on their roles and purposes as documentary filmmakers.

The docs on Ellison and Derrida share a deep abiding quest to understand the self. Thomas Allen Harris records his personal quest in That’s My Face (e minha cara), a journey that takes him from his childhood in New York, to adolescence in Tanzania, to New York again and, in his own spiritual journey, to Brazil. In keeping with the Super-8 home movies that documented his life up to that point, he shot the Brazil leg of his journey on Super-8, and noted after the screening,“If I had shot on DV, I would have been taken for a gringo.” He didn’t use synch sound when filming either, because he saw the camera “as a performative instrument, rather than an instrument for information gathering.” Instead we hear many sounds—his own poetic narrative about Afro-Brazilian spirituality, about his grandfather’s African Methodist-Episcopal church, about his and his mother’s migration to Africa, all layered and sampled with other voices and music. At times, the poetry can be overwrought—take the metaphor of his double- vision affliction, for example—but That’s My Face is a refreshingly rich take on the personal doc genre.

Judith Helfand follows a quirkier journey in Blue Vinyl, prompted by her parents’ decision to put blue vinyl siding on their house. Helfand sets out, blue vinyl in tow, to convince her parents of the dangers the exposure to the toxic substance. She visits a factory in Lake Charles, Louisiana; a conference on poly vinyl chloride in Long Island; a factory in Venice, Italy; and other places around the world to find answers and gather information. But this is no strident television magazine exposé; nor is it a dour, hand-wringing environmental film. Helfand tweaks both genres, in a way, through her delightful sense of humor, keeping us entertained, while schooling us on the seriousness of the subject. Co-director/co-producer/cinematographer Daniel B. Gold earned the Excellence in Cinematography Award.

Lourdes Portillo investigates a far more sobering subject in Señorita Extraviada: the staggering skein of murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, since 1990. Throughout the film, Portillo uncovers one story after another, but the murders continue. But this is no mere mystery. Portillo skillfully connects the murders to larger issues of drug trafficking, government corruption and globalization, while lending her film a striking visual and aural poignancy. Señorita Extraviada earned a Special Jury Prize.

Arthur Dong’s Family Fundamentals, his first film in five years, profiles several gay and lesbian children of conservative parents. As he cuts back and forth between the children and parents, it’s clear that the division is all but unbridgable. Neither party ever appears in the same frame—except when one daughter watches footage of her mother on the monitor. When one subject, Brett, visits his Mormon parents in Utah, they refuse to appear on camera. There’s bitterness and ignorance all around, and Dong is a patient enough filmmaker to record how it all is. Following the screening, he noted that while the subjects in his film failed to find common ground, he hoped that his film would “try to encourage [it.]”


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.