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Politics on Parade in Park City: Sundance Films Focus on Subjects Who Bucked the US System

By Tom White

Shirley Chisholm running for President in 1972. From Shola Lynch's 'Chisholn '72- Unbought and Unbossed.' Photo: Rose Greene.

In the spirit of the US presidential election year, the programmers at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival threw their hats into the ring with a cross-section of documentaries that, obliquely or directly, examine the American political system and the free market economy with which the system is inextricably linked. By plumbing the distant and not-so-distant pasts, these films both uncover heretofore buried stories of individuals who challenged the system and throw harsh light on its merits and flaws.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 for "conspiracy to commit espionage." The case polarized a nation fraught with Cold War paranoia and hysteria.  Fifty years later, Ivy Meeropol, the Rosenbergs' granddaughter, set out on a journey not to re-examine or re-open the case, but to place it in a personal context. Who were her grandparents, and how did their fate impact their respective families? In making Heir to an Execution (Daphne Pinkerson, Marc Levin, Sheila Nevins, prods.), Meeropol constructs this family history with grace, patience and poise, engaging elderly friends, relatives and fellow travelers of the Rosenbergs, as well as her father and uncle, to tell their stories. In a sense this journey resembled that of Nathaniel Kahn's when he made My Architect as a way to recover, reconnect with and reclaim his father—both for him and for us. As in that film, Meeropol here maintains a steady, low-key presence on camera and elicits in this, her first, documentary, a new, 50-year-old story.

Paola di Florio's Home of the Brave (Nancy Dickenson, prod.), like Heir to an Execution, is a journey through history, but here, the story of Viola Liuzzo—the only white woman who was murdered during the Civil Rights Movement, following the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama—is one that was buried from the start. One of the Klansmen who murdered Liuzzo was an informant with the FBI, so out of self-preservation, J. Edgar Hoover launched a smear campaign—against Liuzzo.

In the process of uncovering and reconstructing this story, di Florio works most effectively with those who were most impacted: Liuzzo's children. This is at heart a personal story, with political underpinnings. And by striking a balance between the official government account of the case and the devastating repercussions the government's actions and inactions had on the Liuzzo family, Home of the Brave elevates Viola Liuzzo to her rightful place in the pantheon of civil rights martyrs.

The 1972 presidential campaign was ferociously documented in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, but the good doctor gave scant ink to Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for president. Enter Shola Lynch, with her film Chisholm '72 : Unbought and Unbossed (Phil Bertelson, prod.). With its funky score and the use of split screen, the film places the viewer squarely in the middle of that campaign, with all the drama, twists and turns that an election year can give you. Chisholm herself was both embraced and rejected by both the Black Congressional Congress and the National Organization for Women, but she, the consummate maverick, soldiered on, feisty, principled and determined—and unbought and unbossed.

Richard Nixon was re-elected in that campaign, when America was deeply polarized by Vietnam. With groups like The Weather Underground having been formed years earlier out a sense of powerlessness to take action, the schism between the government and the governed grew wider. The Symbionese Liberation Army also came into being out of this schism, and Robert Stone's Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army documents the short and frenzied life of this band of terrorists. With archival footage, clips from such films as Ché, Robin Hood and State of Siege, the film points up the fantasy the SLA immersed themselves in as "soldiers in the people's army"—and the fact that the media bought this fantasy and sold it as a movie that lasted for two years. On the surface a companion piece to Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground, Neverland takes a harsher view of its subjects. "The SLA destroyed the left," Stone asserted in the Q&A following the screening. "They got the keys to the car and plunged off the cliff. They were an object lesson in how not to make a better world."

 Well, what's past is prologue, and in the panel entitled The Politics of Fear, staged at the Filmmaker Lodge, Stone maintained, "I really view my film as a parable of where we are right now; the country is as polarized now as it was in the 1970s." And if polarization, like all politics, is local, then Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini's Special Jury Prize-winning Farmingville is at local as it gets. Farmingville, a small, middle-class community in Long Island, New York, suddenly began experiencing an influx of undocumented immigrants who had responded to a need for day laborers. Conflict ensued, then protests, then violence. Sandoval and Tambini capture the complicated nexus of issues and questions about tolerance, community, immigration and economy, giving a fair hearing to all parties concerned. The deeper the filmmakers take us into the story of Farmingville, the more it resonates as a classically American story.

An altogether different community, Oak Bluffs, on the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, is the subject of Stanley Nelson's latest film, A Place of Our Own. Nelson is known for his award-winning documentaries about the history of the African-American experience, but A Place of Our Own is a deeply personal film, one in which Nelson plays a prominent role on camera, since Oak Bluffs, a predominantly black summer retreat, has played such a prominent role in his life. Wrestling with the death of his mother, estrangement from his sisters and re-connecting with his father, who had divorced his mother when Nelson was young, Nelson also grapples with reconciling his personal story with the larger issues of maintaining a black community as it grows and changes.

Back on the campaign trail, The Hunting of the President, from Harry Thomason and Nicholas Perry, tracks the ten-year mission by the various strands of the right wing to bring down Bill and Hillary Clinton. Spun with a wry, Southern-fried wit, the film tracks the sinister machinations of a motley cabal of characters ranging from a fishing bait salesman in Arkansas to former US prosecutor Kenneth Starr. There are plenty of villains to go around here, and as Thomason acknowledged in the Q&A, "A lot of people will hate the film and come after us." But one issue many doc-lovers may have with the film is the overuse of found footage, or even just the mere use of it, when the testimonies of the victims are riveting and entertaining enough. It was as if Perry had been newly liberated from his more confining gig at A&E Biography and went on a mad spree. The effect is a little fatuous.

One film that used found footage—along with archival and news footage, animation and graphics—to a greater end is The Corporation, Canadians Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's searing vivisection of an American institution. Based on a book by one of the film's screenwriters, Joel Bakan, the film takes off from a 19th century Supreme Court ruling that granted a corporation the rights of a legal person, and analyzes the psychological makeup of such a person. That's the touchstone for a wide-ranging, richly-rendered inquiry into what "the corporation" hath wrought. Pundits ranging from Noam Chomsky to Peter Drucker to Milton Friedman to Michael Moore, along with a host of captains of industry, whistle blowers, authors and educators weigh in with their wit and wisdom. What had the potential to be dry, MBA-ish material turned out to be a fascinating tableau, suitable for MBAs and MFAs alike. The Corporation earned the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award.

Ditto can be said for Morgan Spurlock's Documentary Directing Award-winning Super Size Me, in which the filmmaker feasts on McDonald's food three times a day for a month to determine the impact on his body, mind and spirit. It's quite a sacrifice for a filmmaker to make, while directing himself in this both funny and troubling journey through Golden Arches all across America. Spurlock's challenge is the catalyst for a larger investigation into nutrition, advertising, obesity, marketing and health. McDonald's never returns Spurlock's numerous on-camera calls, but the corporation did recently agree to do away with Super Size meals.

With nation-building under way in Afghanistan and Iraq, can Golden Arches in Baghdad and Kabul be not too far off? Jehane Noujaim's Control Room gives viewers a fascinating look at media and the coverage of the war in Iraq through the perspective of Al Jazeera, the Arab world's Qatar-based news outlet. Noujaim, an Egytian-American who divides her time between Cairo and New York, enjoyed unprecedented access to Al Zajeera, as well as to other outlets at the US-controlled Central Command. Although Noujaim spent just three months filming in Qatar, she captured the challenges of being responsible journalists, of covering war and of trying to capture the truth in trying circumstances. Both Americans and Arab journalists offer insights, and reveal a surprising bond in shared frustration.

This selection of docs was just a sampling of the wide range of nonfiction that Sundance continues to serve up in just about every programmatic section—Documentary Competition, World Cinema Documentary, American Spectrum, Shorts, Native Forum, Special Screenings, Frontiers and Premieres.


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.