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Sundance 2010: Don't Trust the Government

By Tamara Krinsky

Guggenheim...Gibney...Poitras...Nelson...Grady & Ewing...Sundberg & Stern...Blitz...Walker...Bar-Lev...

The documentary film program at Sundance 2010 was a veritable "Who's Who" of nonfiction filmmakers, a collection of some of the finest artists working in the field today. Combine that with a renewed sense of energy driven by the new leadership of John Cooper and Trevor Groth and a Main Street with fewer swag houses and third-party branded lounges, and this year's fest added up to a cinema-focused, 10-day bonanza for nonfiction film fans.

Sundance has a wonderful history of putting documentaries on equal footing with narrative films, as evidenced by such simple gestures as listing the Documentary Competition first in the program guide. Many audience members now come to the festival expecting that while the narrative program will be wildly uneven, the doc line-up will provide a steady, reliable diet of strong films that do not disappoint. This year, that expectation was exceeded by leaps and bounds. Everywhere I went, people were talking about how strong the documentary selections were. I couldn't agree more – it was a true pleasure to do my job.

My festival started out with a bang with Restrepo, shown on the first night of Sundance along with a narrative film and a short. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's intense documentary about the Second Platoon's deployment in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley puts you right alongside the soldiers as they fight and recover, cope with boredom and tragedy, persist and survive. Restrepo, named after platoon medic PFC Juan Restrepo who was killed in action, is a remote 15-man outpost in one of the most dangerous, combat-heavy areas of the country. There's no running water, no Internet, no phones...just sandbags, ammo, rudimentary barracks and constant attacks.


Restrepo Outpost. From Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's Restrepo. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Junger and Hetherington made a total of 10 trips to Afghanistan throughout the filmmaking process. While they never participated in firefights or stood guard duty, they did everything else alongside the troops, including carrying equipment, sharing the minimalist conditions and going on patrol. The film begins with footage from an IED attack that Junger experienced, immediately launching the audience into a fly-on-the-wall experience of the wartime experience of the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Several times the camera is placed over the shoulder of a fighting soldier, giving the audience a POV shot straight into combat. Hetherington's photography background is apparent throughout the film, as rich images resonate deeply, such as close ups of bullet casings falling into a shoe during a firefight or a cigarette placed in the neck of a guitar during a rare moment of leisure.

The verite footage is intercut with moments from a series of interviews the filmmakers did with the soldiers in Italy three months after their deployment ended. It is here, away from the gunfire and dust, that the men are able to talk about how they feel about their experience. They touch on their loyalty to one another, the unexpected challenges of emotional survival during deployment and their worries about whether the military is prepared to help soldiers who have seen so much combat adjust back to everyday life. The effect of the juxtaposition of interview and verite footage is powerful and illuminating, as for just a moment we get a sense of what it was like to be in the Korengal Valley both in body and spirit. I was not at all surprised when I found out the film had been awarded the Festival's Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

Restrepo made an interesting precursor to The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev's documentary about the life and death of football star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman. After he served multiple tours with the Rangers before being killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004, the U.S. government lied about the cause of Tillman's death. They said that he had been killed in combat while single-handedly saving the lives of dozens of men during an ambush in the mountains of Afghanistan. They awarded him a Silver Star, President Bush made a Proclamation and Tillman was hailed as an American hero.  As the real story behind his death emerged, however, his family sought to bring to light the truth, including exposing those responsible at the highest levels of command for the cover up.

From The Tillman Story (Dir.: Amir Bar-Lev; Prod.: John Battesk). Courtesy of sundance Film Festival

The double feature of Tillman and Restrepo both show different aspects of the wartime experience without passing judgment on the brave men and women who are in the midst of the conflict or on the war itself. A key element of Tillman is that you never find out why Pat enlisted – he put a premium on keeping his motivation private so that he could never be used as a propaganda tool for the US government. When the government finds a way around this, creating a myth out of his death that they can use to further their war effort, it's infuriating. Regardless of what one thinks about the war, an individual soldier's service to his country should never be manipulated for the government's own agenda.

With this in mind, a comment made by Junger during the Q&A following the screening of Restrepo can be applied to both films. An audience member asked how citizens can help soldiers re-enter society following deployment. Junger responded, "I wish I had an answer. Soldiers are volunteers from all backgrounds who are incredibly proud of the choice they've made. Whatever you think of the war or whatever your politics, tell them you understand what a profound thing it is for someone to volunteer for their country."

Jennifer Arnold's A Small Act and Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman made for another complementary Sundance double feature. A Small Act is about Chris Mburu, a Kenyan man whose life was changed when an anonymous Swedish woman sponsored his primary and secondary education. This allowed him to progress through the system, eventually going to Harvard Law School on a Fullbright. He currently serves as a Human Rights Officer with the United Nations, fighting discrimination around the world.

Just prior to the film, Mburu is able to track down his anonymous benefactor, a woman named Hilde Back, and the two actually meet. While we never see their reunion on screen, we do see many of the ways their unique bond has changed both of their lives. It sort of makes sense on a cosmic level when we find out that Back was a Holocaust survivor, and that the Kenyan boy she sponsored grew up to fight genocide all around the world. Additionally, inspired by his benefactor, Mburu creates the Hilde Back Education Fund, a scholarship program for Kenyan children.

From Jennifer Arnold's A Small Act (Prods.: Patti Lee, Jeffrey Soros). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Much of the film focuses on the process of choosing the next group of students who will receive monies from the Fund to continue their secondary education. The kids the filmmakers follow are energetic and excited; eager to take advantage of the opportunity further education offers them. Clad in bright green school uniforms, stressing about the scores they will get on the qualifying exam, their hunger to better their lives is palpable. Ruth, one of the students, remarks: “I can’t even explain how much knowledge I want.”

Davis Guggenheim covers intersecting territory in Waiting for Superman, his Audience Award-winning documentary about America's failing public school system. Half of the film focuses on the reasons why our high schools have become "dropout factories," the difficulty of innovation within the system, and why we seem to be moving backwards instead of forward despite successive US Presidential promises to leave no child behind. The other half of the film, much like A Small Act, focuses on a group of students who desperately want a better education than their current situation offers them. For these kids, the charter school system is the answer, and we follow them as they wait to see if they'll get lucky in the lottery and earn one of the coveted spots.

What's amazing is about the children in both films is how much they want more than the system is offering them, and their recognition that education is a way to a better life. Both films connect the lack of education with violence. Says Mburu, "You get violence when poor people can be exploited to work for very little money doing things they don’t understand." Education is a path to understanding, to being informed enough to make choices about one's own life.

No matter how much these kids want to improve their lives, for those who don't receive scholarships or who get stuck in high schools notorious for their dropout rates, betterment is a difficult task. This is due in part to the conditions and expected norms under which they exist. The Kenyan girls who don’t go away to school end up becoming pregnant early and get into the cycle of not being able to support themselves. Kids placed in academic sinkholes in the US join gangs and acquire criminal records rather than diplomas because a gang becomes the one place they find acknowledgement, recognition and encouragement.

Of course, no documentary program would be complete without its selection of cautionary tales about the state of the world. Josh Fox's GasLand, which garnered a Special Jury Award, is part road-trip, part eco-doc, delivering its message with equal parts humor and warning. When Fox gets a notice in the mail asking him to lease his land for natural gas drilling, he decides to become a "natural gas detective" and find out what the consequences of taking such a payout might be. He travels across the US so he can visit with others who have leased their land, witnessing firsthand the devastating consequences of "hydraulic fracturing," aka "fracking."

The natural gas industry has done a fantastic job of promoting their product as "clean" energy; what they've managed to cover up is that the fracking process necessary to extract the gas contaminates the water supply and uses up a tremendous amount of natural resources. On his journey, Fox meets homeowners whose water wells have become ruined because of the drilling. In one of the most insane scenes I've seen in a doc, Fox and a couple of Colorado residents lights a stream of water on fire as it emerges from the kitchen sink. But wait, you say – water isn't supposed to light on fire!?!  Exactly the point. This is only possible because there's so much gas content in the water as a result of the drilling!

From Josh Fox's GasLand (Prods.: Trish Adlesic, Molly Gandour). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There consequences of fracking go beyond the kitchen sink. Livestock are drinking the water, thereby polluting the food chain. Wells are being built on land that's directly in the path of migrating wildlife, disturbing their yearly patterns. Residents from different areas of the country are becoming chronically ill, all showing the same symptoms. And trust in the government to fight for the safety of individual citizens over the interests of large corporations is gradually eroding. Part of the reason that fracking is even possible is because in 2005, Congress and the Bush Administration exempted the natural gas industry and this drilling process from the Safe Drinking Water Act and many primary environmental protection laws. For more information and resources about fracking, see the Gasland blog.

Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero dealt with another explosive subject: nuclear proliferation. In this polished film, Walker uses recurring visual motifs of security camera footage, "five-mile" circles juxtaposed over city maps to show areas of maximum devastation, and of course, explosions, to drive home the effects of a nuclear detonation. While these days, terrorism seems the most likely cause of a nuclear explosion, Walker also explores how accidents and miscalculation can lead to detonation. Human error, malfunctioning computer chips and mistaken alerts have brought us much closer to the brink of war than most would suspect. The film goes through a litany of all of the screw-ups made by the US government, such as bombs that have been lost (side note: between Countdown, Tillman and GasLand, government reliability took quite a beating at Sundance).

I was curious about why Walker (Devil's Playground) had decided to tackle this subject at this particular moment in time. During the fascinating Q&A after the film, both Walker and producer Lawrence Bender talked about the fact that the non-proliferation treaty is being negotiated this year. Said Bender, "People need to get behind it and support the issue like they supported the environment with An Inconvenient Truth."

Valerie Plame, who is featured in the film and was also present for the Q&A, talked about the fact that somehow we must convince countries like Iran that mutually assured destruction is no longer a viable foreign policy. She said, "The only way we can be assured of our security is to drain the swamp. All of us."

For more coverage on Sundance 2010, see IDA's News on the Doc coverage, which has a day-by-day chronicle of the editorial team's coverage at the fest.

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary and content producer at