February 12, 2004

Sundance Turns 30: Alums and Newbies Enliven the Mix

The 30th edition of Sundance Film Festival opened on the day of the Academy Award nominations, and, perhaps to tie the two occasions together, four out of the five documentary feature nominees—Twenty Feet from Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars and The Square—had premiered at Sundance the year before, while two of the snubbed titles-Blackfish and Stories We Tell—also figured in the Sundance 2013 mix. For much of the past 30 years, and certainly over the past decade, the road from Sundance to the Oscars has for many documentary makers formed a grail-to-grail arc.

Not to hyperventilate about the 2014-2015 Awards Season already...

But three decades as a career-launcher for many is cause for some celebration, and many Sundance vets who showcased their work in the Documentary Premieres section, seemingly having graduated from the Competition ranks—Alex Gibney, Stanley Nelson, Amir Bar-Lev, Rory Kennedy, Joe Berlinger and Greg Barker among them—each gave heartfelt thanks to the Sundance crew for having propelled them into the doc space.

The heartiest and teariest of thanks came from Steve James, whose epochal Hoop Dreams screened here, in a newly restored print, 20 years after its hallowed debut. James was here with the much anticipated Life Itself, about the late film critic—and Sundance fixture—Roger Ebert, and James was so overcome with the dual task of introducing his new work and reflecting on that moment two decades ago when Ebert and sparring partner Gene Siskel made the unprecedented move of reviewing Hoop Dreams before its world premiere, that he couldn't finish his opening remarks.

And the film itself delivered—a heartful, warts-and-all elegy on a man who loved writing as much as he loved the movies, and who despite losing his voice, never stopped sharing his insights and passion. James skillfully navigates several concurrent narratives—that of the difficult final months of Ebert's life, when he maintained a magnanimous embrace despite his debilitating infirmities; the text of his memoir, Life Itself, read by someone who sounded remarkably like Ebert; the recollections of his longtime friends, colleagues, filmmakers, fellow critics and his stalwart and magnificent wife, Chaz;  and of course clips from the films that drove his career.  Most of all, there was the narrative of his complicated relationship with Gene Siskel, which evolved from mutual disdain to genuine brotherly love; and the great love story that was his marriage. The Eberts, along with Steve Zallian and Martin Scorsese, had called on James to take on this project, and it's certainly no mean trick to pull off a film about a film critic-especially one who had helped launch his career. James himself shares his own insights in the film about the process of making Life Itself and the challenge of keeping Ebert engaged when he was too weak to continue. But just as Ebert in his more robust days praised the best movies as those that "left you a truer version of who you were," Life Itself gives us a true version of who Ebert was.


Steve James (left) and Chaz Ebert, after the screening of James' Life Itself. Photo: Jonathan Hickerson. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


Jeremiah Jagar's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, on the other hand, explores how the media creates a version of what we're led to believe is true. Taking the sensationalized murder trial of Smart's husband as the premise, Zagar and his team launch an inquiry into the power of storytelling, and how the tropes and conceits that have been passed through the ether from the days of Greek tragedy have informed how we construct narratives to suit our sensibilities. Smart starred in the first televised trial, which, in turn, inspired a made-for-TV movie, then a novel, which, in turn, inspired a film, which in turn informed the recollections of one of the perpetrators as he appears in the documentary today. From the opening and closing scenes, in which a curtains opens and closes on a solitary television screen in the spotlight on a stage, Zagar challenges our compulsion to fictionalize the truth to fit our received notions of storytelling.


From Jeremiah Zagar's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


One of the most discussed films at Sundance was Jesse Moss' The Overnighters, which earned a Special Jury Prize for "Intuitive Filmmaking." Ostensibly a film that tracks the fortunes and misfortunes of men who make the pilgrimage to oil-rich North Dakota for work, The Overnighters focuses on the Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, which its pastor, Jay Reinke, has set up as a waystation for these men, who have made the trek from far and wide. But tensions arise between the pastor and his congregation, the town and the town newspaper over the fact that many of these men has less than savory pasts. Reinke, governed by his Christian principles, welcomes these men as "gifts," as broken souls worthy of compassion and redemption. But as pressures mount and loyalties turn, the pastor grapples with his own private conflicts, which, in the end, get the better of him. While Moss sheds light and heat on a boomtown culture, and its negative by-products—loss of family for the migrants, loss of community for the townsfolk, disillusionment for many—he manages to find and follow a deeper story about the struggle to maintain a principled public persona while grappling with the private pain within.

Sundance's international offerings have expanded over the past decade and two of the more noteworthy ones—Concerning Violence and We Come As Friends—could be considered a cinematic diptych about colonialism, post-colonialism and neocolonialism. Concerning Violence is Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson's follow-up to his 2011 film The Blackpower Mixtape 1967-1975. Like that film, Concerning Violence is drawn entirely from archival footage that Olsson had discovered in the basement of Swedish Television. Once again, Olsson works his editorial magic, underscoring excerpts from documentaries and news reports about struggles for independence in Africa with an impassioned reading by Ms. Lauryn Hill of Frantz Fanon's seminal text on decolonization, The Wretched of the Earth. Structured into nine chapters, Concerning Violence not only brings history alive, but reaffirms Faulkner's contention, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."


From Goran Hugo Olsson's Concerning Violence. Photo: Lennart Malmer. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


We Come As Friends is Hubert Sauper's first film since his remarkable Academy Award-nominated Darwin's Nightmare, and Sauper seemingly takes up where Olsson left off, choosing South Sudan, the newest country on the African continent, as a petri dish for Fanon's analysis. Having achieved a degree of notoriety with Darwin's Nightmare, Sauper had difficulty gaining entry into South Sudan, so he did the counterintuitive thing: He built and piloted a small plane and presented himself as an air force captain, complete with makeshift uniform, with his cinematographer, Barney Broomfield, as his crew. This premise enables him to undertake what he deemed before the screening a "psychoanalysis of the pathology of imperialism." He flies from village to village, interviewing natives, oil drillers from China, evangelicals from Texas, UN peacekeepers, South Sudanese soldiers-in  short, every stakeholder, exploiter and exploited alike, in this new nation. Once again, the past is prologue, and Sauper manages to both cast a light on a history that hasn't passed, and capture strange, indelible characters and scenes along the way. "It was our LSD," Sauper said of his flying machine after the screening. And with that he has created a work both frenzied and mesmerizing. The film earned a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Competition.


From Hubert Sauper's We Come As Friends. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.