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Sundance Film Festival: A "Renewed Rebellion"

By Tom White

The 2010 Sundance Film Festival officially ushered in the John Cooper-Trevor Groth Era, with proclamations of "renewed rebellion," "rebirth," a "recharged fight" and, from founder Robert Redford himself, a "return to our roots." The documentaries, always the righteous rebels of Sundance, continued to reflect their renown for revolutionary recalcitrance.

For my musings about Adrian Grenier's Teenage Paparazzo and Leon Gast's Smash His Camera, click here.  In an unintentional triple feature, I saw Jose Padhilha's Secrets of the Tribe right between those two films. The first lines from that film, spoken by a Yamomami tribesman: "You're taking our picture! Put that camera away!" But this is not your everyday ethnographic study; rather, the true tribespeople--and the subjects of this scintillating documentary--are the decades-long line of anthropologists who have ventured down the Amazon to the remotest wilds of the jungle, to live among the Yamomani people, study their customs and return to academia to write and publish what they discovered, as well as  edit and present their films. But as with any academic discipline, conflicts arise, rival camps are established, theories are defended and refuted. But as the film progresses, we discover that this is no ivory-tower squabble. Revelations of sexual predation and bioethical eugenics turn this tale into a white man's burden horror show of exploitation and degradation. Despite its hallowed mien, academia bears the dark legacy of colonialism,. Padilha skillfully gives everyone-anthropologists and aborigines alike-a fair hearing, but the true exponents of tribalism at its fiercest wear their old school ties proudly.

As one of the few African-American artists in the high-flying demi-monde of the art world of 1980s New York, Jean-Michael Basquiat, the subject of Tamra Davis' Jean-Michael Basquiat: The Radiant Child, sensed his role and his place there. In one telling piece of footage from the early 1980s, the interviewer asks him about "the primitive nature" of his work. "Primitive? You mean, like a primate?" Basquiat shoots back. Davis had expanded this film from a video interview she had shot with the late artist in 1986; that interview played at the massive Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and at MOCA in Los Angeles and serves as the foundation for this compelling exploration of the man and his work. Technical flaws abound, however: 80s-era video is notoriously subject to degradation, and the streaks and yellow auras are distracting. And the present-day interviews could have stood some preliminary sound-checking. But Davis does do right by Basquiat's work, though, juxtaposing selections of his massive oeuvre with antecedents by the likes of De Kooning, Pollock and Picasso. But one of the most telling anecdotes about Basquait came from hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy, who talked about the artist being feted by a mostly white gallery crowd, then steeping outside to the curb and watching cab after cab ignore his outstretched arm.


Jean-Michael Basquait at work. From Tamra Davis' Jean-Michael Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Prods.: David Koh, Lilly Bright, Stanley Buchtal, Alexis Manya Spraic). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


I thought about Pat Tillman, the subject of Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story, after watching Basquiat. My colleague Tamara Krinsky writes more extensively about the film here, but I was struck with one image toward the end of the film: a statue of Tillman in his football uniform, pumping his fist and clutching his helmet, his long hair flying and his mouth open in full battle cry, is being lowered onto its pedestal. But there's something benign and sad about this image: The statue is in a harness, but it's as if Tillman himself is being garroted. Then we see a medium shot of the statue in its grotto, but there's a palpable loneliness about it-much like the sham hearings about the cover-up, and the parade of generals shamelessly lying before Congress, washing their hands of it, then walking away, having exploited Tillman for their own purposes, then leaving him in a lonely grotto where no one could find him.

I came away from that film with a sense of outrage about where the country had gone those past eight years, and where it's going now. A worthy palliative lay in "Saving Democracy: One Story at a Time," a panel assembled by Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program Director Cara Mertes and her formidable crew. She introduced the panel saying documentaries can provide solutions "at the speed of film." The panel, moderated by Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights and populated by Alex Gibney, director of Casino Jack (click here for my thoughts on that film); Laura Poitras, director of The Oath, about two Yemeni brothers-in-law with affiliations with Al Qaeda; and Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of the radio news program Democracy Now!, which had been broadcasting all week from Sundance. All four talked about the value of finding the individual story to lead the way to the larger statement, that heroes and villains alike, in their virtues and flaws, can evince the complications and the humanity of a given issue. Pointing out how independent media brings you into another world and builds bridges between communities, Goodman showed clips from the Democracy Now! website about her recent trip to Haiti. The most powerful images she came back with showed the dignity of Haitians amid this epochal tragedy and the courage of the people trying to help them. "You can't convey this by telling it," Goodman maintained. "We're reminded of what it means to be a human being." 

When the conversation turned to the recent Supreme Court decision about campaign financing and corporations, Gibney called it "one of the most starkly cynical decisions I've ever seen." He continued, "We've rarely been so polarized; it's difficult to tell stories that break through that." The panel generally called for people to mobilize their outrage. "Don't take public media for granted," Goodman advised. "The more good media we have, the better chance we have of saving it. It's so important to get past sound byte media and get a diversity of voices from all sides. Let people speak for themselves It's our responsibility to provide a forum."


The "Saving Democracy: One Story at a Time" Panel--:left to right: Alex Gibney, Amy Goodman, Michael Ratner, Laura Poitras. Photo: Brandon Joseph Baker


One film that epitomized the power of the individual story to tell a larger truth of a national condition was Lixin Fan's Last Train Home, which was the toast of IDFA, but was curiously shut out of the awards here. Fan follows one family over three years as they struggle in the face of a dieing rural economy, which has necessitated a mass migration of 130 million people to work in cities. These migrants go home once a year-Chinese New Year-and the wait for a ticket on the train is a nerve-wracking, often weeklong ordeal.


From Lixin Fan's Last Train Home (Prods.: Milla Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival



Fan focuses on the Zhang family, following husband and wife on their journey to reunite with their teenage kids, capturing the familial tension that inevitably arises from parental absence, adolescent yearnings and economic struggles to do what's best for the children. China has been touted as the fastest growing economy in the world for quite some time, but Fan manages to find the human reality of that growth, and the gap between global power and lack of opportunities.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary Magazine.