The documentaries at Sundance this year were typically varied but righteously and rightly political. This was most pointedly reflected in the awards bestowed on films in competition, and in the fact that new, very specific categories were created among the “special jury” honors.
Awards for “social impact”—U.S. and World, respectively—were given to 3½ Minutes, the tragically sad narrative of another stand-your-ground murder, that of African American teenager Jordan Davis, underlining again the urgency of the #blacklivesmatter protest, and to Pervert Park, an impressively nonjudgmental look at a community in Florida where men and women who have served sentences for sexual crimes can live and work toward some sort of reconciliation. Other new special jury prizes were awarded for “verité,” won by Western, which portrays two unusually friendly towns on the U.S.–Mexican border that nevertheless live with the unavoidable tension of the modern frontier; and for the even more specific distinction of “unparalleled access,” given to The Chinese Mayor, a rare look at the day-to-day working life of a government official on a boosterist crusade to upgrade his town—a fascinating glimpse at the often still unfathomable workings of Chinese politics writ small.
The Russian Woodpecker
Many more of the prizes reflected a strong desire to reward engagement: the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize for The Russian Woodpecker, a film that places itself at the center of the current Ukrainian sovereignty crisis whilst trying to uncover Russian complicity in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster; the directing award to the effortlessly feminist filmmaker Kim Longinotto for Dreamcatcher, which extends her interest in human trafficking to focus on women caught in the downward spiral of street prostitution in Chicago; “break-out first feature” award for (T)ERROR, about the FBI's counterterrorism overreach; and a prize given to Cartel Land for its war-zone cinematography. The prevalence of socially engaged documentaries made the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize for The Wolfpack stick out as something of an exception.
Films that required the cinematographers to wear bulletproof vests, buzz-worthy films tackling the hard-hitting big issues, films bent on changing policy or sounding a loud call to arms—such as Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Louie Psihoyos's Racing Extinction—competed for hearts and minds with those featuring AIDS activist Larry Kramer, the Black Panthers, Greenpeace, and the Six-Day War. But in addition there were a few compelling “feel-good” documentaries which, although determinedly uplifting, could be seen as equally political.
Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance</em>
Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance is as much about class as it is about horseracing. Inevitably so: here is a story about an informal syndicate from Cefn Fforest, a poor mining town in Wales (where there has been no mining since the pits closed in the Eighties) gate-crashing the sport of kings. The social divide in this sport, in which typically the aristocracy own the prize horses and the rest of us bet on them in squalid off-turf sites, is huge. In this Cinderella story, Jan Vokes, a barmaid in a workingman's club and a cleaner at Asda (one of the cheaper supermarket chains in Britain), managed to get 23 people in the village to pay £10 a week to breed, groom, and train a racehorse that they name Dream Alliance. Dream Alliance is a beautiful horse, and perhaps because his early years were spent on a slag heap of an allotment, he turns out to have a lot of heart and a huge competitive spirit. He wins over a skeptical horseracing world and brings a huge amount of pride to the townspeople crowded around the TV in the pub watching the races, and to the owners who find themselves with the right to enter a rarified world previously closed to them.
There is a natural drama built into any horse race, and watching the rather brutal Grand National is pretty nerve-wracking even without any interest in the outcome. Dark Horse is a beautifully shot documentary with a lot of love and good-natured stick-it-to-the-status-quo energy. Additionally there are some heart-stopping moments and some groundbreaking science in this film (animal-rights supporters, fear not). Already described as “The Equine Rocky” Dream Alliance proves yet again that (in the words of John Lennon) a working-class hero is indeed something to be.
Chuck Norris vs Communism
Another unlikely hero walks into the frame of another unlikely story in Chuck Norris vs Communism. In the final years of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, life was grim, censorship was rigorous, and entertainment (much less any news of the outside world) was hard if not impossible to come by. Yet there was a black market in VHS tapes smuggled from the West via the Hungarian border. Irina Nistor was a translator who by day worked for the national censorship committee (where even cartoons were censored for showing overly abundant supermarkets and the like), but by night she dubbed into Romanian almost every word of seemingly every other film made by Hollywood in the Eighties. People would congregate in the apartments of those lucky enough to own a VCR (which cost as much as a car or a small apartment). The repeatedly duped tapes featured not only the likes of Rocky, Back to the Future, and Chuck Norris, but higher-brow fare such as Last Tango in Paris, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Deerhunter—with all performers dubbed in Nistor’s high-pitched voice.
These film-watching sessions became a social phenomenon. Nistor became famous doing something that on the face of it was not an especially political act, and yet it was an extremely brave thing to do. It surely contributed to the precipitous downfall of the regime in 1989, and she is cherished for the part she played during the crucial endgame in Romania’s communist history. Apparently she cannot even call for a cab in Bucharest without people on the other end of the line thrilled at the sound of her voice. Chuck Norris vs Communism is a tremendously fun film. The reminiscences are amusing, and the retro re-creations are very evocative. It’s a salutary slice of history for us in the pampered, over-entertained West (or at least those of us who are pampered and over-entertained in the West) to learn about.
City of Gold
Food criticism is not advocacy, one might suppose, but what a nice surprise the film City of Gold was. Here is a gentle, unassuming film, five years in the making: the filmmakers drove with Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold around the streets of Greater Los Angeles, from mini-malls in the San Gabriel Valley to downtown street vendors, providing a delicious portrait of a thriving city of immigrants. One comes away with a sense of a place with such a breadth of cultural diversity that the city’s reputation for vapidity is quickly buried. Call it Day of the Stir-Fried Locust. Gold is the first person to have won a Pulitzer Prize for his food criticism (in 2007). He is a great American and a small-D democrat, and his backyard is a great American city. He glories in the small and the specific, elevating a restaurant serving Isaan Thai, for example, over the usual Bangkok fare. He champions a start-up Ethiopian eatery and digs deep to find the best curbside taco. A natural explorer, Gold famously ate his way along Pico Boulevard in the Eighties. It’s a pleasure to ride shotgun on this journey.
There were many more exemplary films that I hope we will be talking about over the course of this year. In a festival whose oft-repeated mantra is all about “telling your stories,” the documentaries remain committed to the simple task of telling other people's stories—movingly so. Thus I cried at the bigheartedness of Dreamcatcher: when protagonist Brenda Myers-Powell says “I've got your back” to the vulnerable, already abused girls on her watch, some of them already in prison, some of them already on the street, you believe her. But more importantly they believe her. And I was infuriated by the aggressively insidious white supremacists in Welcome to Leith, a film filled with more menace than I’ve felt in a while. I traveled back down the canyon to Salt Lake City unable to get the creepy voice of Warren Jeffs, the subject of Prophet’s Prey, out of my head. And I thrilled at the dangerous beauty of Meru, a film that is decidedly humanist rather than adventurist. Finally and powerfully, I fell in love with Nina Simone in frame one of the must-see What Happened, Miss Simone?—and grieved for her the rest of the week.