21st Century Dox at Sundance

On the one hand, we were in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; one the other, we were witnessing the most significant US Presidential Inauguration in history. And in between the sadness and euphoria, the Sundance Film Festival was celebrating its 25th anniversary, opening in the last dying days of the Bush Administration and closing in the bright shining rays of the Obama Era.

There was much to relish in the middle. With hope and change having electrified the nation since the day after Election Day, Cara Mertes, Sundance's Documentary Film Program Director, and her crew seized the moment and conceived and assembled a panel of forward-thinking leaders in sounding the alarm about the planet and leading the charge. The "Now or Never" panel, in the
spirit of the Doc Program funding initiative Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus through Documentary, featured such figures as Van Jones, head of Green for All, and subject of Tracy Heather Strain and Megan Gelstein's Green Shall Overcome (a recipient of a Stories of Change grant); author Charles Grover, whose book on over-fishing, The End of the Line, is
the subject of Rupert Murray documentary of the same name; Dennis Hayes, of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on sustainable development; and Kavita Ramdas, executive director of the Global Fund for Women. While the panel did not include filmmakers, the panelists were well aware of the power of documentary film to get their good work and deeds to larger and broader audiences. It was incumbent upon the documentary filmmakers in the room to transform the
raw material on stage into compelling cinematic storytelling.

One filmmaker who was certainly up to the charge was Louie Psihoyos, whose riveting documentary The Cove took the Audience Award. Psihoyos, whose primary métier is underwater photography, took a little known issue-the slaughter of dolphins off the coast of Japan-and turned it into an on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller, in which  Psihoyos and his intrepid band of derring-doers capture the slaughter on the most sophisticated camera equipment available-night vision, underwater, heat-sensitive, it's all here. Psihoyos even corralled Industrial Light and Magic into the act to create camera casings that resembled rocks and foliage. Psihoyos never loses sight of the message, and his guiding light is Rick O'Barry, who went from training dolphins for the TV show Flipper to dedicating his life to setting and keeping them free. After Psihoyos and his crew capture the horrific proceedings in the cove on camera, O'Barry straps a flat-screen monitor and DVD player to his body and barges into a fishing industry conference and displays the gruesome footage for all to see. A conceptual art ending to a truly 21st century movie.

 

 
From Louie Psihoyas' The Cove, which won the Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Another 21st century movie whose seeds were planted in the 20th century was Ondi Timoner's Grand Jury Prize-winning We Live in Public, which profiles Josh Harris, an Internet pioneer
and conceptual artist whose grand-scale ventures and voyeuristic escapades in the 1980s and 1990s foreshadowed the Facebook Generation of today. A prickly, self-destructive sort with a megalomaniacal streak, Harris could very well be a distant cousin of Anton Newcombe, the mercurial, combative rock star/would-be genius from Timoner's previous Grand Jury Prize winner, DIG! (Timoner made history as the first filmmaker to capture two Sundance Grand Jury Prizes). While DIG! took seven years and a thousand hours of footage to make, We Live in Public took ten years and thousands more. And the result is a stunning epic for our time, with the first of two centerpieces in the film being Harris' "Quiet: We Live in Public" project, in which several New Yorkers opted to live in an underground bunker under 24-hour surveillance. Utopia
quickly evolved into dystopia, but Harris loved playing the puppetmaster while it lasted. And there was his online surveillance project with his girlfriend, in which he rigged 32 motion-sensitive cameras in his loft for the virtual community to behold the couple's every move. The project collapsed, as did the relationship-and his financial worth (at one point $80 million). By the end of the film, Harris has left the online community-first to tend to an apple orchard, then to dial-up world of Ethiopia, as the We Live in Public world that he arguably helped to create continues to spin in its narcissistic/exhibitionist fury.

 

 
From Ondi Timoner's Grand Jury Prize-winning We Live in Public.

And what's narcissism without fashion? And the pope of the fashion world is Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief -for life of Vogue magazine, and the subject, in part, of RJ Cutler's The September Issue. I say in part because the production of the mammoth September Issue of Vogue, its most expensive and most profitable issue, is the narrative around which Ms. Wintour and her colleagues revolve. While the budget of Documentary magazine probably equals Wintour's lunch money for a week-and she doesn't eat much-as an editor, I could nonetheless appreciate the many different components and phases that go into creating one unit. And Cutler found a compelling foil in Grace Coddington, the creative director, who is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her colleague of two decades, even though she sometimes loses her battles. But the beauty of The September Issue lies in cinematographer Bob Richman's adroit artistry in capturing the creative process-and maintaining that tricky balance between unobtrusiveness and
intimacy. It's no mean trick to explore the soul of Anna Wintour and allow her vulnerabilities to reveal themselves. But Richman has done that, and for that he earned the Cinematography Prize-as well as a photo in the September issue of Vogue.

 

 
From RJ Cutler's The September Issue. Photo: Lori Hawkins/Actual Reality Pictures.

Eric Daniel Metzgar's Reporter follows a journalist of a different sort-Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times who makes a living travelling to wartorn places to report and comment on what he sees. In a time of dire straits for the print world, Kristof is shining beacon. Metzgar accompanies him and two interns to Congo to film his process as he ferrets out ground-level stories from impoverished villages and travels down dangerous backroads to interview a warlord. In the end, we have a deeper appreciation for how news is gathered and reported, and what the reporter's role is in promulgating conditions and issues for the rest of the world to care about. While Reporter didn't win any prizes at Sundance, Metzgar nonetheless impressed this doc-lover with this great leap forward from his award-winning
predecessor, The Chances of the World Changing.

 

 

We, The Jury: Left to right: Patrick Creadon, Marina Zenovich, Sam Pollard, Andrea Meditch, Karl Deal. Photo: Tracie Lewis

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.

 

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