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Festivals: Sundance 2012 Documentary Reflections

By Vicki Robinson on March 15, 2012

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This was my second year at Sundance and I hit the slopes with high expectations. Documentaries have firmly found their place in the roster of all that is exemplary about this festival. And there was a lot to be excited about.

This year the true delights in the documentary slate were not necessarily to be found among the most prominent premieres, the award-winners, or even the topics of wait-line chatter. While films such as Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, winner of the Grand Jury Prize, and Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, which won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award, were worthy contributions and indeed powerful pieces of advocacy, they didn’t move (or surprise) me as much as Marius Markevicius’s history of Lithuanian basketball, The Other Dream Team, or Yung Chang’s sweet portrayal of aspiring state boxing champions, China Heavyweight.

Similarly, the winner of the U.S. Directing Award in documentary, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, deserved some of the buzz surrounding its subjects, billionaires Jackie and David Siegel. Greenfield follows the Siegels over four years as they try to build the country’s biggest house in Orlando, and then as the financial collapse brings down their heavily leveraged time-share business. Soon after the film kicked off the festival, David Siegel filed suit over its description in the program as a “rags-to-riches story.” But I found these people more than tiresome and preferred spending time with the wonderful inhabitants (aka the 99 percent) of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia. And for intrigue, Moscow has it in spades over Orlando in the engaging Putin’s Kiss.

One of the most compelling documentaries I sat through was not in the main program. New Frontier, Sundance’s transmedia section, continues to go from strength to strength, with many delights this year. Question Bridge: Black Males, a multiscreen video installation in which 150 African-American men engage in question-and-answer with one other about identity, was a candid conversation I’m glad not to have missed.

But Sundance truly reached a pinnacle with two films that satisfied emotional, intellectual, and cinematographic sensibilities: 5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, and Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts. They scored very high for their historical insight, aesthetic accomplishment, topicality, political spirit, and personal narrative. Both films, vastly different in style, concern Israeli-occupied Palestinian land and are even more powerful when seen together.

A note before beginning: I missed seeing Park City favorites Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski), Love Free or Die (Macky Alston), Indie Game: The Movie (Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky), Searching for Sugarman (Malik Bendjelloul), and Rory Kennedy’s Ethel—which reportedly had the audience in tears.

I teared up a lot during Marius Markevicius’s The Other Dream Team, a film about the deep backstory of the triumphant 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team. Sports and politics mix hard in Lithuania, a country under occupation and/or part of the Soviet empire for the better part of the 20th century. Basketball held a historic place in the culture long before it was exploited by the USSR sports machine and the players became pawns in the Cold War. The film’s real starting point is 1988 with the Russian Olympic gold-medal win over Team USA in Seoul, and the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Soviet team fielded four Lithuanian star players, and the film follows in detail their careers and the slow journey towards mounting a national team for the 1992 Barcelona games. There is an optimistic 2011 coda to the hard, proud road taken by the country’s talented and big-hearted players as we follow a young Lithuanian player bound for the NBA draft. My tears were both happy and sad: broken-hearted for the boy who came to look for his father during the 1991 Soviet attack on the Vilnius TV tower only to find him run over by a tank; joyful at the unveiling of the tie-dye uniforms proudly worn by the 1992 Lithuanian Grateful Dead Freedom Team (which was financed by the band). It is easy to see why basketball still looms large in the hearts and minds of the Lithuanian people.

The “five broken cameras” that give Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s film its title—or, more pointedly, the five destroyed cameras—tell a powerful story. Originally purchased by Burnat to document the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel, the cameras bore witness to the non-violent resistance mounted by the citizens of the Palestinian village Bil’in (who include Burnat’s friends and their families) against the “fence” built through the middle of their land. It is a daily struggle to protect the olive groves that surround the village from a rapidly encroaching Israeli settlement, but the villagers are persistent and ingenious in their protest. Over the course of five years, baby Gibreel grows into a young boy, and Burnat loses five cameras to bullet or grenade impacts (the Israeli army is armed, the settlers are not entirely non-violent). Burnat becomes a filmmaker. He can hardly bear to put his camera down, and thus he documents everything, to the frustration of his patient wife. Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker, partnered with Burnat to edit the footage into 5 Broken Cameras—a remarkable history and one of the most distressing films I have ever seen. At heart a personal story, it stands as a strong condemnation of a policy of settlement that the film suggests is at best misguided, and at worst arrogant, murderous, and destructive.

Yung Chang’s China Heavyweight is an appealing portrayal of the grooming of China’s competitive boxers, recruited from among the youngsters of tobacco country in southwest China. Charismatic coach Qi Moxiang and boxing master Zhao Zhong helm a school that has produced 200 champions in 20 years. It’s easy to see why: they take a philosophical approach to their profession (Confucius is discussed) and to nurturing China’s growing boxing ambitions, as do all the staff and the sport’s officials. They are very loving toward their charges and serious about nurturing the potential of the weak-fisted, bemused kids they select. The training of those with true promise is rigorous and tough; the family scenes are quiet and honest. It’s a sad journey for one young man with overreaching ambitions who abandons the state competitions and bureaucratic honors in the hopes of becoming a professional “boxing king,” only to land squarely back on the terraced slopes of his poor family’s farm. Director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) has made a sweet and beautiful film.

Everyone except the Chinese government agrees that Ai Wei Wei is a great guy. Artist, activist, obsessive documenter, provocateur, Internet maven—his motto is “Never retreat. Retweet!”—he is an anomaly in China’s seemingly cowed society, and it is exciting that he has many followers among his compatriots. The star of Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry grew up in Cultural Revolution exile with artistic parents (his father Ai Qing was a famous poet), attended the Beijing Film Academy, became an artist, lived in New York, and built an artist enclave in Beijing. As a celebrated artist with a natural sense of irony, Ai increasingly makes work to pass moral judgment. (Disillusioned by the state’s response to the Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, he campaigned on behalf of children who had died under shoddily constructed schools. He tweets the names of the victims on their birthdays under the hash tag #512Birthday.)

Filmmaker Alison Klayman spent three years with Ai, beginning right after the Beijing Olympics (which the artist criticized as propaganda). Never Sorry is a fascinating chronicle of Ai’s opposition to the government’s far-reaching power, documenting the surveillance he is under, his beating by local police, harassment by the state, and ultimately his arrest. (Ai has since been released but is forbidden from communicating with the media, tweeting, or leaving Beijing.) The film is a moving portrait of the fight for free expression—moving inasmuch as he is a hero to many average Chinese citizens. When it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance, the audience, at Klayman’s request, happily posed for a photo giving Ai’s trademark finger.

The recent news that Michigan is on the up is belied by Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s film about the abandonment of Detroit. The place appears to be in full-blown depression, the end of a long journey that began with the collapse of manufacturing over the past few decades. The documentary paints quite a lyrical portrait of this particular ground zero, populated with spirited, good-humored residents who are out to fight the good fight for their home. But this scrap hulk of a city is being downsized and redrawn as it continues to lose population rapidly (currently 700,000, less than half its mid-century peak). The filmmakers and the subjects have made some sort of poetry out of the detritus of capitalism, finding paragons of American resilience in UAW chapter president George McGregor, blogger Crystal Starr, and bar owner Tommy Stevens, an ex-schoolteacher.

“The Queen of Versailles” is in fact a small-town girl named Jackie from Binghamton, New York. The former Mrs Florida who married David Siegel, billionaire owner of Westgate Resorts, led a life of extreme luxury (somewhat messed up by their eight children). Originally a witness to the building of the Siegels dream house, a Versailles-like compound slated to be the largest home in America, The Queen of Versailles feels much like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous—until the economy tanks mid-filming, leaving the Siegels close to bankrupcies. The real estate and the time-share business itself turn out to be built on borrowed money and mortgaged promises.

As husband David grows morose and ornery, wife Jackie appears stronger and more constructive. But ultimately this is the story of not especially thoughtful people who got rich selling luxury and wallowed in it. It’s also hard to watch a film when you have to avert your eyes to avoid being constantly assailed by Jackie's huge boobs. As the Siegels’ one adopted (and therefore only recently rich) daughter points out: “There’s nothing normal about this life.” The children appear only as background but seem strangely balanced. This is probably due to their two loving and capable Filipino nannies (one of whom has not seen her own child for over 10 years, which is one of the movie's more telling moments).

Lise Birk Pedersen’s Putin’s Kiss is a compelling tale of the fall from grace and political awakening of Masha Drokrova, a star of the pro-Putin youth “movement” known as Nashi. Drokova is close to Nashi’s Machiavellian leader Vasily Yakamenko and becomes the media posterchild of the organization as it turns increasingly aggressive, indeed violent, in its denunciation of anyone deemed to be the opposition. As she begins to meet and socialize with journalists, she comes to see how brutal and corrupt this highly orchestrated movement can be in service to the political agenda of the Kremlin. Pedersen’s first feature introduces us to a courageous, very likable young woman.

One of the most rigorous documentaries that has come along in a while is The Law in These Parts—as the material demands. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s film investigates the Israeli system of laws and rules used to impose order on the occupied territories, as devised by the military legal corps that originally codified them. The setup is performative: the retired judges and prosecutors sit behind a desk on a lit stage and submit to cross-examination from the floor by Alexandrowicz. Behind them plays footage from documentaries made in the years since the 1967 Six-Day War.

The men on display demonstrate a lot of character (or is it a small degree arrogance?) in submitting to this prosecution-style question and answer session, and they convey with haunting clarity the construction of an occupation. While more often a question of order versus justice, notwithstanding the intriguing position of the Supreme Court as protector of the state and the people, most interesting is how the state managed to legitimize Israel’s expansion. With fascinating legal cunning, they cite Ottoman law to justify aggressive land grabs. The film takes a commendably philosophical approach and is essentially an impressive treatise on the rule of law.

Another of the more intellectually ambitious documentaries in the festival, Payback focuses on the concept of debt as explored in Margaret Atwood’s book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, and features the author herself at a podium preparing and delivering a lecture on the subject. Jennifer Baichwal’s film takes a timely look at debt, with the premise that how we think about it changes the way it works. Payback offers an examination of various debts paid, revenge extracted, penitence served, and reconciliation sought, depicting variously a blood feud between Albanian families, the empowerment of a group of Florida tomato pickers, a prison, and the Gulf oil spill.

It’s a provocative approach to an important topic, and concludes that everything is unjust because we all benefit from the hardship and labor of others. (Add to that the daily debt we accrue ecologically.) One minor note: Atwood is a fine writer and great phrase-turner, not to mention fun in interviews, but sadly lacks charisma at the podium.

“My mouth hurts from asking you if you love me.” This wonderful line from an Andalusian song tells everything there is to know about Rachel Leah Jones’s Gypsy Davy. It’s the story of David Jones, a great flamenco player and serial wife-abandoner with serious paternity issues. The director, Jones’s own daughter, adopts a knowingly bitter tone—and why not, as her estranged father shrugs off everything in a way that makes you want to slap him. But there are two sides to every story. And as she gets to know her father, we likewise, get to know her, we begin to get a fuller picture. It’s a slow process. All of Jones’s wives, girlfriends (now a parade of middle-aged yentas), and children tell aggrieved stories—underscored by the sorrow and melodrama-filled Andalusian flamenco that still owns the musician’s heart.

Many other documentaries were also of note. The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton, is a winning portrait of a psychopath, the serial French child imposter Frédéric Bourdin. (It’s a worthy companion to David Grann’s excellent 2008 New Yorker article “The Chameleon.”) Here the imposter himself recounts how he pretended to be the missing son of a Texas family, with a candid relish that is disconcertingly infectious. The film also features a private detective who could be the protagonist of a Coen Brothers movie. Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a hard look at the failure of America’s drug war, which the director believes constitute a “war on the poor.” Mandatory sentencing laws are something so many people seem to be against (including judges) that it’s amazing they are still in place. The film suggests that political pandering and the privatization of the prison system keep them alive. Political, as the Paul Robeson rendition of the song used in the end titles suggests, and personal (the fate of Jarecki’s childhood minder’s family was the springboard for his interest) but alas nothing new. Slavery by Another Name could serve as a historical antecedent to The House I Live In, though it is strangely more shocking. Despite the fairly straight, PBS-style narration, the film is nonetheless a vital rewriting of post–Civil War history. The documentary exposes the seemingly systematically suppressed story of black men forced into prison labor, peonage, and debt, through trumped-up charges, trumped-up debt, and convict leasing schemes—fueling the industrial growth of the South. It’s an important missing chapter in a painful history. A powerful advocacy documentary from Kirby Dick, The Invisible War uses staggering stories and statistics as its weapon. The film presents many horrifying accounts of rape within the military, and the military’s baffling response. (One woman was charged with adultery: “I wasn’t married. He was.”)

Lastly, there was Big Boys Gone Bananas!*. Not often do (good) documentaries have happy endings, trading mostly as they do in complicated emotions. Fredrik Gertten and Margarete Jangård are filmmakers who chronicled their fearless fight against the aggressive effort by the Dole Food Company to suppress their documentary Bananas!*. Dole’s maneuvers appear to come unusually undone against a four-person film company and the little country of Sweden. File under: pleasing, uplifting, political.

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