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Online Exclusive: The Sundance Documentaries—Truth and Reconciliation

By Vicki Robinson

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Sundance has a deservedly good reputation for strong documentaries that become and then remain part of the cinematic conversation. In fact, four out of five of this year’s Academy Award nominees in this category were among last year’s Park City favorites. One of those—Gasland—has arguably turned out to be the political-impact film of 2010. Judging from what I’ve seen, this year’s slate will prove no exception. Docs seem to be on something of a high.

Fueling the enthusiasm and supplying the media pipelines (welcome Oprah, thank you HBO, as ever PBS), Sundance rolled out a new section, Documentary Premieres. Add these to the worldwide, U.S., indigenous, and short docs, and it all made for a hefty slate. I was a Sundance virgin and enthusiastically chased after the nonfiction entries and yet still missed the crowd-pleasers and award-winners SennaKnuckleBuckHow to Die in Oregon, and Being Elmo. I saw none of the shorts, nor this year’s film about the financial crisis (The Flaw), nor the much-hyped Life in a Day. What I did see, however, was thoroughly compelling.

I honestly don’t understand the Premieres category, but it did offer a couple of the most inspirational docs of the festival: Granito and The Interrupters. The latter is another must-see film from Steve James, the co-creator of Hoop Dreams. “Violence interrupters” are people who patrol the streets of the South Side of Chicago doing the hard work of attempting to head off deadly chain-reactions of bloodshed. The three interrupters James introduces us to are smart, persistent, and impressive. They do dangerous work that seems to have a wholly positive effect. Cobe Williams, Ameena Matthews, and Eddie Bocanegra have each lived through so much high-octane street action that they appear totally credible to both the audience and their wards. (After watching Hell and Back Again, the big Sundance award-winner, I found myself wishing that the interrupters were the ones on the ground in Afghanistan.) They work for CeaseFire, an organization that views violence as a disease. They intervene, offer connection, preach peace, and altogether show a huge sense of commitment that the people on the street respond to. Big thumbs up.

Granito

The fact that the process of healing is a slow one is also a central point of Granito. (N.B.: the film’s title has since been expanded to the more punchy and more timely: Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.) Some 30 years ago a young Pamela Yates made When the Mountains Tremble, a simple yet seminal film about the Guatemalan civil war and genocide. Yates, aiming to uncover the “hidden war” perpetrated by the government against its people, gained access to a guerrilla encampment in the mountains, and actually flew with the army on a few raids. She somehow managed to interview dictator Ríos Montt (on what could be called a “charm offensive”) who in turn blithely condemns himself.

Now, as a middle-aged woman, Yates revisits the outtakes of her film and adds her figurative “grain of sand” (granito) toward the ongoing attempt to bring to justice the authors of the scorched-earth policy that decimated the Guatemalan population. She joins like-minded people including a researcher who scours the country’s National Police archives, the lead attorney on the case in Spain, an archaeologist digging up the bones of the disappeared, and Mayan witnesses. Together they help build a criminal case for genocide. The director describes Granito as a cinematic archaeological dig, and as the film sifts through the evidence, the notes and lists, the directives, the thousands of bones in the La Verbena graveyard, and the haunting images of her earlier film, the new work emerges as a chronicle of the healing of a country.

Another Doc Premiere, Reagan, has since already been screened on HBO. Director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight,The Trials of Henry Kissinger) has the sufficient chops to try to make sense of the myth of Ronald Reagan, but in an effort to add irony, the film’s tone can be a bit discordant. (Amusing though the end-credit music may be—bearing the lyrics “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun”—it just seems a bit too wacky.) Reagan is mostly an insider view of the man (with help from his official biographer, his son, and people from his administration). While Jarecki’s treatment is comprehensive, his subject remains somehow untarnished, iconically American, and ultimately impenetrable. Jarecki does try to underscore the ultimate venality of the Reagan doctrine: the voodoo-world view of the most ideological, most self-made, and, truth be told, luckiest of presidents.

An excellent antidote to Reagan’s vision of America (and he does in fact turn up in it) was another Sundance favorite: Göran Hugo Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. With a bounty of found film, incisive outsider POVs, and artfully put together footage, originally made by Swedish journalists reporting on the so-called Black Power movement in its seminal years, it’s a true time capsule. Adding to its overall power is the occasional audio commentary of current African-American luminaries confronting the extraordinary material.

African Election

The World Cinema Documentary Competition category provided a lot of excitement. Jarreth Merz’s An African Election,is a thrilling and timely reminder of the messiness of an emerging democracy. We are put right in the middle of Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections, within reach of the key players, in the living rooms of power, with the throngs in the streets, and those waiting patiently in the lines or counting the votes (out loud). There’s tremendous drama in the race to get the single percentage point necessary to pull ahead and win it all.

A big jury favorite in this section (winner of both the World Cinema Jury Prize and the World Cinema Cinematography Award) was Hell and Back Again. After filming Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in south Afghanistan, acclaimed photographer Danfung Dennis accompanied one of the wounded soldiers and ended up with a true tale of damnation. The film moves back and forth in time as we witness soldiers killed, wounded and enduring pep talks about getting the Afghan people “closer to their government” (or, more ominously, “to rid the Taliban of the population”).We follow a wheelchair-bound Nathan Harris home to North Carolina and his long-suffering wife with his shattered hip and leg, and his searing headaches. Not as stirring as last year’s big winner, Restrepo—Nathan is inarticulate but authentic—it might be a more important film about the pain of war. Notwithstanding the Afghanistan footage, this is really a movie about rehabilitation, pain management, and how the body slowly repairs while the mind malingers.

Amid the seemingly pervasive and proud racism in the Ukraine stands a paragon of inspiration: her name is Olga Nenya, and she has fostered 16 interracial kids, saving them from certain abandonment and abuse (as if living in provincial Ukraine isn’t difficult enough). With a lot of hard work and common instinct “Mama” provides a healthy and loving home, all observed in Julia Ivanova’s Family Portrait in Black and White. Naturally, it’s a complicated life. The main subject has her own huge flaws, not least of which is her unrelenting need to keep her children close, denying them opportunities that her very limited vision cannot fathom. (“What do they have in Italy that we don’t have here in the Ukraine? The summers are warmer here,” she says while refusing to sign adoption papers.) She does her best and is an admirable character, but, in one of the saddest sections of the movie, she can’t prevent the absurd state system from getting its hands on one of the kids. You ultimately hope for all of them to escape—and a sequel to reveal what happens to them. This was one of my favorite films, although I wish it had a better title.

Speaking of titles, Leonard Retel Helmrich has a few winners… Position Among the Stars is the third in a trilogy of films that began in 2001 with The Eye of the Day and continued in 2004 with Shape of the Moon. Helmrich made a pilgrimage to his mother’s Indonesian village after she died (he was born in Holland) and ended up filming the Shamshudin family for the next 12 years: pious mother and grandmother Rumidja, hapless son Bakti, and petulant niece/granddaughter Tari. This film brings grandma back to the city slums, persuaded by her son to help bring up, i.e., rein in, the now teenaged niece Tari. In one of the most charming scenes I witnessed at Sundance, mother and son, failing to stop the train (by standing in its path!) leave the village by traveling backwards on a scooter along the railway line.

As an ethnographer Helmrich fits right in with this family and the surroundings, but he has an over-confident belief that his presence will never influence how his subjects behave just because they know him so well. His sometimes astounding, occasionally exasperating single-take style (the camera flies all over the place) is often used to “complete a moment” (his words) by, for example, shifting focus to follow the insects above or the rats below. This provides abstract punctuation to all the family drama. It’s all rich and often beautiful, funny and heartwarming anthropology (and was rewarded with the World Cinema Special Jury Prize). 

Project Nim

Back stateside, Project Nim, also in the world-cinema competition and winner of the Directing Award, is a tragic tale of the life of a chimpanzee and the endless procession of humans who, with selfish and naïve motives, do him harm again and again. In the name of science, Nim was taken away from his mother at birth (the first of many thoughtlessly performed injustices) to conduct research as to whether chimps can be taught sign language and communicate with humans (they can’t, really) and be nurtured as humans (again, no). With a wealth of newly discovered footage shot during Nim’s life, and a revolving door of candid and damning monologues that propel the narrative, human behavior is ultimately put under the microscope in this sad tale. As in his previous film, Man on Wire, James Marsh uses archive and artful reconstruction to tell this story.

In the U.S. documentary slate there were many heroes and, of course, antiheroes. David Weissman’s We Were Here gives us a wonderful example of the former: people who stepped up and showed real character and were then humbled by their experience. The film focuses on five individuals who came to San Francisco in the Seventies for the freedom that the city offered. They shortly found themselves at ground zero of the AIDS crisis. They form a microcosm of the catastrophe: they did the dying and the caretaking, became the families, tested the drugs, and buried the dead. This film is an intimate picture of a community reflected in the very personal stories of five people.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of the best films of the festival, The Redemption of General Butt Naked is an exemplary portrait of an antihero. Meet Joshua Milton Blahyi, the gospel-preaching former General Butt Naked, warlord of the Butt Naked battalion (composed of child soldiers he essentially kidnapped) who would fearlessly fight in the nude, wildly spraying machine gunfire, and raping and maiming wherever they went in the nasty civil war that has only recently ended in Liberia. Today, he’s in full evangelical repentance, apologizing and trying to make amends with those he has hurt (by his own estimation about 20,000 people killed). He knows that he will be apologizing for the rest of his life.

This was one of the more complicated documentaries at Sundance. And it’s a bit of a trip. The filmmakers let you decide for yourself (as every documentary should). Blahyi was as brutal as he is grandiose yet he is obviously in pain. Time and again he displays remorse and empathy—and then acts like an ass. Although he’s clearly a narcissist, I was won over. His contrition seems believable and honorable, and his timely testimony to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is significant.

Andrew Rossi’s Page One is a must-see if you are at all interested in the state of journalism (as I am). Rossi spent a year with the media desk at The New York Times, and in doing so managed to effectively reflect upon and crystallize the current problems facing print journalism. The New York Times (arguably the greatest newspaper in the world) is on the front line.

As it turns out, new media needs old media just as much as the old needs the new. Page One reminds us of the recent failings of this very newspaper (notably in the run-up to Iraq) and acknowledges that the medium has been slow to realize the potency of the Web 2.0., but it also demonstrates that the decline has been overstated. Media has always upgraded its capabilities and is quite happy to shift paradigms. The filmmakers were present during the first WikiLeaks partnership with established media, and shares with us other significant stop-the-presses moments. David Carr, with his droll demeanor, is an indelible and quotable presence and he provides many of the salient points in defense of the profession. Sign me up.

The Last Mountain

Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain is another call to action. It demonstrates the horrifying disregard that Big Coal (specifically Massey Energy) has for the environment and the people in its path. Mountain top removal, causing myriad and deadly environmental problems, has proliferated in the last 10 years. As always, the mining and burning of coal is fraught with political and social issues. And then there’s this: 500 Appalachian mountains have been leveled with dynamite, along with 1 million acres of forest cut, and 2,000 streams buried. In Coal River Valley the residents are steadfastly fighting to prevent further destruction (not to mention bring wind power to the gusty area, move the school away from a potential toxic sludge disaster, investigate clusters of brain tumors, and so on). The film’s familiar narrative of deregulation, union busting, short-term profit, and pervasive greed yields up another wonderful collection of heroes and villains. (The film does however suffer from overreliance on blue-blood environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. and a NatGeo-lite narration.)

And finally, a film that truly harks back to the spirit of Sundance past (the director self-financed it by cleaning houses): Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, a sensitive documentary that treats obsession and artistic idiosyncrasy with warmth and understanding. Plus it’s a pretty odd mystery, i.e., an investigative journey to find out who is responsible for the hundreds of tiles that have appeared all over the world with a cryptic campaign to “Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.” Director Jon Foy clearly admires magical realism and achieves some sense of this in his movie with collage paintings. It gives the mystery a very dreamlike feel.  And he won the Documentary Directing Award for it.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of the 2011 Sundance docs. What I’ve seen so far lives up to the promise and the tougher demands of the form, brandishing no-holds-barred truths with subtle and demanding studies of reinvention and forgiveness. 

© 2011 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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