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Sundance 2009 Wrap Up: Fish, Dirt, Recreations and Danger

By Tamara Krinsky

The 2009 Sundance Film Festival was a more moderate affair than previous editions in many ways. The temperature was milder, the deal-making less frenetic, the party lines shorter and the parking much, much easier. Once I got inside the theater and the film started rolling, though, it all felt the same to me. The screenings I attended were full and the public audiences participated enthusiastically in the Q&A sessions following each film, excited to interact with the filmmakers in attendance. Sundance is still one of the only places in the world where I can find consistently packed, generous houses for documentary films.   

As I made my way from screening to screening, several trends emerged. The winner for ‘Most Popular Subject?’ The state of the planet. Louie Psihoyos’ thriller The Cove takes on illegal dolphin capture, while Joe Berlinger’s Crude looks at toxic oil waste in the Ecuadoran Amazon. The Festival’s closing night presentation was Earth Days, Robert Stone’s recounting of the history of the modern environmental movement.

Several filmmakers chose to focus on individuals trying to make a difference. John Maringouin’s Big River Man is a character study of endurance swimmer Martin Strel, a Slovenian who swims rivers to highlight pollution in the world. Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s No Impact Man chronicles the attempt of author Colin Beavan and his family to live for one year making zero environmental impact.

I was able to catch two of the eco-docs on the slate: Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow’s Dirt! The Movie, a playful, spiritual tale of the soil beneath our feet, and Rupert Murray’s The End of the Line, a sober report on the state of the fishing industry and our oceans.

End of the Line, which is based on the book of the same name by Charles Clover, begins with a credit sequence set against beautiful shots of and exotic underwater creatures right out of a National Geographic special. The film draws you in right away with talk of predators and eerie shark shadows. But then Murray pulls a bait and switch. It turns out the fish are the victims, and humans are the true source of danger.

The comprehensive documentary explores overfishing and its effects in a variety of ways, including an examination of the decline in the international fish catch, queries to restaurants about their use of sustainable fishes, profiles of failing fishing communities, and personal stories of those trying to solve the problems. Murray employs an array of visuals to tell his story, including graphic footage of fishermen murdering blue fin tuna, interviews, archival footage, charts and graphs, and even commercials for fish products.

End of the Line
End of the Line

Call me naïve, but I was shocked to learn about how different countries often ignore scientific evidence when coming up with guidelines for their fishermen. For example, the European Union has set fishing limits that are not in accordance with scientists’ numbers for maintaining sustainable fish stocks. As one subject in the film says, “It’s negotiating with biology, and you can’t do that and expect biology to survive.”  

At times the flow of information can get overwhelming, therefore, the film is strongest when it makes its points by focusing on an individual, such as the specific story of Adama Mbergaul, a Senegalese fisherman who is trying to provide for his baby daughter. The Senegalese rely on fish not only for their livelihoods, but also as a source of cultural identity. The giant trawlers that have come to Senegal’s waters are currently threatening both. Now that the sea no longer supports him, Mbergaul must decide whether or not to emigrate to Europe to support his family. The emotional dilemma helps connects the audience to the larger issue, and is an excellent demonstration of how local effects global, and vice versa.

During the Q&A following the film, Murray and members of his team took questions from the alarmed audience, emphasizing how important it is to speak to our leaders. They said that in addition to the fact that we don’t yet know how overfishing interacts with global warming, the fish population is both an economic and a food security issue. Said Murray, “Our politicians only hear from the fishing industry, not from us as shared owners of this resource.”

Dirt! The Movie employs a completely different tone. The lively film, which is based on Bill Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, uses humor to help deliver its message about the scientific and mythic connections humans have to soil. Light-hearted footage punctuates testimony from an assortment of experts, ranging from TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis to Nobel Laureate/Green Belt Movement founder Wangari Maathai to Gary Vaynerchuck, host of

You can’t interview dirt, so Benenson and Rosow use animation to attempt to personalize the microbes in the soil. The simple animated creatures comment on the action of the film throughout, something that was a bit too cutesy for me, but might appeal to the youth audience whom the filmmakers are trying to reach. The film also features some really lovely, more abstract animation sequences, such as the story of a forgotten truck in which garbage morphs to garden with the help of a little soil.

Throughout the film, there’s a lot of touching, smelling and caressing of dirt. In addition to the science primer on where dirt fits in to the ecosystem, people like physicist/environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva talk about the metaphysical aspects of the earth beneath our feet. She says, “For us, mud is not just the matrix of life in which we grow our’s our very sense of who we are.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva, Physicist & Environmental Activist
Dirt! The Movie

While I’ll probably never want to taste the dirt the way Vaynerchuck “eats the ground” whenever he visits a new wine region, the movie did bring me back to a simpler time in childhood, reminding me of the joy of playing out in my backyard, creating mud pies and cakes from wet garden soil. It made me want to get my hands dirty.

The film excels when it digs (pun intended) into the stories of those who are involved with programs that rehabilitate both the earth and the individual. Majora Carter is the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that addresses urban environmental issues. At Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, students take cooking and gardening classes at the Edible Schoolyard program, founded by Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), to learn about the connection beween the things we grow and the food we eat. The Greenhouse Project at Rikers Island jail system provides inmates with horticultural job training. I was moved watching a prisoner talk about finding a metaphor to her own life in the the tough yet sweet cactus she was planting, and left the film with an overall feeling of optimism. The solutions are out there – they just require a lot of creative thinking.

Both End of the Line and Dirt!  accomplished their goals of making me think more about my relationship to the earth. End of the Line does so through fear and guilt; I haven’t been able to eat tuna sushi since seeing the film. Dirt! shifted my perspective on things like organic vegetables. In the past, I’ve always thought about what pesticide-treated vegetables will do to me; now I’m thinking on a more global scale about what they do to the planet and how I can help prevent that damage.

Another trend I noticed was the creative use of recreation. In both Greg Barker’s Sergio and Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ, the directors used the limitations of footage and situation to help determine the creative aesthetic of their films. Cleary, each was successful, as Sergio garnered the U.S. Documentary Editing Award and Burma VJ scored the World Documentary Editing Award.

Sergio is about United Nations superstar Sergio Vieira de Mello, the charismatic, handsome Brazilian diplomat who served as the reluctant U.N. Ambassador to Iraq. He was killed on August 19, 2003, when a truck bomb exploded directly beneath his office at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. It was the first big attack on a civilian target, and essentially the beginning of the insurgency as we have come to know it. The film is based on Chasing the Flame, a biography by Samantha Powers.


Sergio Vieira de Mello in Sergio
Photo credit: HBO

Barker says the inspiration for his film came to him in a flash when learned about the rescue attempt made by two American firefighters from the Army Reserves, Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine. After the bomb went off, Sergio was left alive at the bottom of a deep, narrow shaft. The two soldiers climbed in to try to save him. Says Barker, “I just thought this was extraordinary and I saw it immediately as the narrative spine of the film. It worked for me on a pure dramatic level.”

Barker was fortunate in that a press conference had been scheduled for the day of the blast, which meant that there was a wealth of footage at his disposal for the documentary. He found shots of Carolina, Sergio’s girlfriend, and von Zehle outside the building. However, he had to recreate the entire rescue operation, as there was no video from inside the hole. 

He says, “I’m not generally a big fan of dramatizations in documentaries and I knew that that was the only way of telling that story, short of having no visuals there at all, which I did consider. But I just thought it would make it less powerful as a piece of film and a work of art. So I decided I was going to do it. My biggest watchword was that we didn’t want to make it cheesy.”

To accomplish this, Barker focused on making sure the narrative drive always came from the interviewees, and that the recreation scenes acted as support for the interview sections rather than as a literal telling of the story. He says, “We didn’t do much sound design. We kept it very spare so you’re just kind of filling the visual space and letting people project the words of the interviewees onto it.” He and his team were aided by the participation of Valentine and von Zehle, who play themselves in the recreation scenes. The film will be broadcast on HBO in the last quarter of 2009 or early 2010.

Burma VJ director Anders Østergaard also had the assistance of his subjects when shooting the recreations in his film. His powerful documentary is about an underground network of independent video reporters in Burma. While documenting their efforts in September 2007, the Buddhist monks rebelled in a massive uprising against Burma’s military junta. The scope of Østergaard’s film expanded from a small personal documentary to an international political drama.

Burma VJ
Burma VJ

As the situation in Burma became more volatile, “Joshua,” the protagonist of the film, had to leave Burma for security reasons. He ended up coordinating the efforts of the VJs from Thailand as they documented the situation from within the country. The only problem was that in order to keep him safe, Østergaard couldn’t show Joshua’s face on camera. The solution was to recreate the phone calls and IM chats that Joshua had with his colleagues on the ground in Burma, shooting him in such a way that he’s unrecognizable. Østergaard describes these conversations as “the spinal cord of the film,” for as Joshua is forced to observe the situation from the outside, he ends up becoming the audience’s gateway into the story.

Østergaard refers to these scenes as “self constructions,” and says his main job was to get out of the way. He says, “We met with the guys in Thailand and so simply asked them, ‘You were here on this day and how was your conversation?’ So the good thing, the reassuring thing about it, is that it is the real guys who are talking to each other. That was a reality check we had all the time.”

The filmmaker was aided by the many Instant Message chats that the VJs had saved while clandestinely communicating. All they had to do was rerun them while shooting the recreations. Joshua, who also served as the assistant director on the film, also kept an eye on things to make sure authenticity was maintained. The result is a seamless transition between the reconstructions and original footage from the VJs. Burma VJ will be broadcast on HBO in 2010.

While at the festival, Østergaard participated in a panel at the Filmmaker Lodge entitled, “Truth and Consequences,” which looked at the issues filmmakers and their subjects face when documentaries speak out against those in power. Critic and cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich moderated the panel. The other participants included Hubert Sauper (Darwin’s Nightmare), who was attending the festival as a juror for the World Documentary Competition, and Ngawang Choephel, whose film Tibet in Song received the World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary.

Tibet in song
Tibet in Song
Ruby asked the filmmakers if their subjects understood the risk they were undertaking when they agreed to take part in the films. She questioned the idea of informed consent – whether or not there is any way for people to truly understand the implications of participation. 

Østergaard said that after the unsuccessful uprising, three of Joshua’s colleagues were put in prison. Østergaard feared that the film would worsen things for them. He was scared that they’d be tortured or that there would be reprisals against their relatives. However, he was reassured by the VJs that they were proud of what they did. He says, “They settled that they had premeditated the risk way before I had ever met them. I take heart from the fact that the reporters are the most excited about the film. They want it to go to Burma.”

Ngawang had a similar response to Ruby’s question. He said there was no one in his film who didn’t understand the consequences of it. People wanted to tell the story. At the same time, security concerns also affected the content of his film. Though he sent crews to Tibet twice, ultimately he decided not to use the material and interviewed recent escapees instead. Ngawang has a deep personal understanding of the risks this kind of filmmaking entails – he spent 6.5 years in prison for the crime of leaving his home base in India and going into Tibet to try to locate, record and preserve traditional folk songs that reveal the historical roots of Tibetan culture.

Sauper became a victim of his own project when Darwin’s Nightmare stirred up the ire of the Tanzanian government. His film explores the connection between the African gun trade and Tanzania’s Lake Victoria fishing industry. The Tanzanian government tried to discredit his film, attacking it in a number of different ways. They claimed the street children featured in the film were actors, crafted an alternative website for the film complete with doctored photos of Sauper with Saddam Hussein, and accused the filmmakers of making porn because of scenes they shot with prostitutes. Sauper explained they were included in the film because they make a living with the Russian pilots who fly the arms to Africa.

Many of the attacks against the film were timed to the 2006 Academy Awards in order to take advantage of the media spotlight on the film, a nominee for Best Documentary. Says Sauper, “Even though I won prizes and money, it went back into lawsuits and defending the subjects of my film. The last two years, I was running kind of a private Amnesty International and trying to communicate about what was going on.”

Despite the dangers, all the filmmakers agreed that the power of documentary film is important, and that it exists as a separate entity from journalism. Østergaard said that journalism is factual, whereas documentary provides an emotional point of view. Barker expressed a similar sentiment when I asked him how he felt his work on Sergio differed from the previous investigative pieces he’d done for FRONTLINE. He said that while the initial approach to the work is the same – meticulous research – journalism dives into policy issues, whereas Sergio delves into basic human emotions on a deeper level.

Sauper pointed out that the closing film of the festival was Earth Days, and that one of the beginning figures of the ecological movement wasn’t a scientist; it was Rachel Carson who found a poetic formula to communicate through her book Silent Spring.

He says, “We are now at a point where so many global issues are so incredibly important. We have all this knowledge and data on websites, books and television. But we don’t have many smart, poetic and artistic representations of what is our world about today. That is why venues like Sundance are so important.”

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary Magazine.