Festivals: Sundance Documentaries
Large, broad, and of the moment, the typical Sundance roster of documentaries presents the opportunity to meet the good, the bad, and the ugly, and to marvel at the many complications of human frailty (and often psychopathology). This year the balance definitely tilted towards the good. While the films could indeed be weighty or surprising, one more often came away with a heart swollen with admiration for the people on display (and often those in their proximity).
To be sure, a few thorns threatened to burst the big bubble of empathy: Dick Cheney, Ginny Thomas (wife of Clarence, Tea Partier in Citizen Koch, and bothering the still-heroic Anita Hill in ANITA</em>), the activist-billionaire Koch Brothers. But what I mainly encountered was a heartwarming parade of good guys. Moreover many of the films are out to do the right thing by raising money for their associated causes (the entire proceeds in the case of Blood Brother).
So as I was delivered back down the canyon into Salt Lake City after the festival, even though the shuttle-bus driver was playing an easy-listening station devoted to the Mormon hymnal, I found myself with little appetite for judgment and lacking the firmer convictions needed for proper criticism. What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding anyway? So instead, here is a new kind of Film Comment list for the documentaries of Sundance 2013: the real folks held in high regard by a soft-hearted reviewer in the lower slopes of the Wasatch Mountains, Utah.
Let’s start with the almost saintly hipster Rocky Braat, the hero of Blood Brother, a winner of both audience and jury awards. A cool dude with a mischievous smile, Rocky obeys an instinctive calling to take care of the children with HIV/AIDS in a Chennai orphanage. (Take a handkerchief to this one.) The kids call him Rocky Anna (Tamil for “brother”), and they love him. He in return dedicates his life to them. It is not an easy or simple (or clean) endeavor, but this young man—who claims not to have even liked kids that much before landing in this his spiritual and familial home—can’t turn his back. He commits himself to providing whatever he can, whenever they need it, in whatever form is available to him, and usually with a good deal of natural exuberance and charm (currently he is on a drive to simply raise enough money for milk and eggs for a year). In turn, the place is pure nirvana for Rocky, who lacked a stable or close family. The film is also a personal journey for director Steve Hoover, who comes to find out what has captured the heart of his best friend (whom he met in school in Pittsburgh).
Patient and placid in the face of extreme adversity, the subject of Kim Longinotto’s new film, Salma, is an angelic, peaceful and unlikely rebel who amazingly endured 25 years of confinement by her family in a village in the south of India but emerged a poet and an agent for change (even winning state political office). However, the strength of the absurd and punitive customs inflicted on girls in her culture only gives way slowly. While it is gratifying to see how proud her mother is of this beautiful woman, and that her husband has come to have a grudging respect for her quiet power, her two sons appear to look down on her. Make no mistake that what has propelled Salma has been her anger at her circumstances. Still today, as she said during an interview at Sundance, with a delightful smile, “I have angry.” Smiling is complicated in India. Of veteran documentarian Longinotto, IMDb offers a strange solitary entry in her “trivia” section: “She does not appear in any of her films.” On the contrary, Longinotto feels very much present in this film, connecting with Salma the woman as she waits for Salma the film to unfold.
When I Walk
A large group of emotionally intelligent people help us process Kevin’s recovery from traumatic brain injury in The Crash Reel: the quietly admirable family of Snowboarding superstar Kevin Pearce (and his “frends”—“there’s no i in friend”). Doc star Lucy Walker (Waste Land, Countdown to Zero) came as a fangirl to this spectacular and increasingly extreme sport and ended up filming an epic and surprising story (the tag line says it all) about “a fall and a rise.” In When I Walk, filmmaker Jason DaSilva turns his camera on himself to document his race against time in the form of multiple sclerosis. With heroic perseverance, DaSilva makes a film about smiling in the face of adversity that is a study in good humor (he’s Canadian). Special shout-out to Jason’s hard-ass mom.
The Square introduces us to Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Aida El-kashef and their compatriots, fellow members of what they jokingly call their “Cairo camera club.” This diverse group of protestors—no, participants—in the revolution are drawn to the place that became and remains the symbolic center of the Arab Spring. In collaboration with the director, Jehane Noujaim, they take us inside the Square (El Midan), and often into dangerous situations, displaying an open-hearted love for their country and their fellow Egyptians. (These include Magdi, a collegial and genial, independent-minded supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, now unaffiliated.) One could well imagine seeing Tim Hetherington, war photographer and gentle man, gone too soon, in their midst. A sensitive witness to men and boys at war and lover of the people of the world, Hetherington photographed in order to connect, as he is remembered in Sebastian Junger’s Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?. He was foremost a humanitarian and in his professional life embodied the maxim (shared by Junger from their time in the Karangal Valley): “War is hell. But it’s more than that.”
Richi Soto is a crime scene investigator in Ciudad Juarez, the homicide capital of the world and a city that “smells of blood,” per Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura. Soto performs a thankless and sisyphean task—over 80 killings a day in 2010—not so much investigating as processing and cataloguing the murders, sometimes while wearing a ski mask lest he like several of his colleagues be recognized and killed. His admirable diligence is the flip side of a boastful violent culture, glamorized and glorified across the border in the U.S. with in-your-face corridos (drug ballads)—essentially mariachi-style polka tunes, about beheadings and the like—that are written and performed by young men taking a sideswipe at the American Dream.
Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?
Who Is Dayani Cristal? brings the humanity of the plight of migrants front and center. We meet the exemplary staff of the small Medical Examiners office in Tucson and many government officials on both sides of the border: search and rescue; local sheriffs; forensic experts; and the embassy personnel who obsessively toil to identify and repatriate to their villages and families the often meager remains of men and women who die in the desert hinterlands (numbering 2000 over the last decade). Witness the small Honduran town of El Escanito, where grief cannot be contained upon the arrival of remains in an airfreight coffin, stamped appropriately “handle with care.”
Dawn Boldrin, an Oxnard high school teacher who appears in Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road, is one of the few in her south California town who acknowledged and supported her pupil, the adorable-looking Lawrence King, who expresses a natural flamboyance with dresses, nail polish, and lipstick. Boldrin even gave him an old dress that once belonged to her daughter. But these things still can be complicated. After approaching another boy on Valentine’s Day, King was shot in the back during one of Boldrin's classes. Fired and now working at Starbucks, she is a key witness in this film that goes behind the headlines to find more headlines: guns in school, gay panic, gender presentation, youth incarcerated as adults, bullying and intimidation, neglected teens, and more.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is a kind-hearted and smart beacon of comfort amid the rabid evangelically inspired homophobia that is now rampant in his country. He is a voice of reason and decency amidst the murderous climate depicted in God Loves Uganda, a film which posits that the infusion of American evangelical missionaries into his country is systematically fueling an agenda of hatred and ignorance. He stands today in firm solidarity with all LGBT communities.
Yale graduate, lawyer, Oscar-winning and very sweet filmmaker Kalyanee Mam escaped Khmer Rouge work camps in Cambodia with her family as a young child and her elegant, essentially ethnographic film, A River Changes Course, about her home country won the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary. This is a film about sacrifice, lovingly observed. Cambodia is undergoing rapid changes that are forcing people off the land and into debt. Deep in the jungle of the northeast, on a floating village on the Tonlé Sap River and just outside the capital, Phnom Penh, Mam films families eking out subsistence-level lives. Over-fishing, over-farming, widespread deforestation, the diverting of waters, globalization, and over-development leave these people with few choices. What were once mountains are now roads; what was once a forest is now commercial farmland owned by Chinese businesses; where there was once an abundance of fish, now there is a paucity. The many moments of beauty to be found in A River Changes Course represent a strong contrast with all of this.
In Fallen City, filmed over four years, the cinematography poetically captures the pervasive sense of loss in China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Young teenager Hong is still pining for his father who was killed in the disaster, while being abusively harangued by his mother. Poor lad. His is one of three portraits of grief from the town of Beichuan, devastated and abandoned, its people relocated to a newly built replacement city. Change has come too rapidly for the survivors, but Fallen City is slow, calm and thoughtful.
The Moo Man
A word now for the Moo Man: “cow whisperer” and organically certified dairy farmer Steve Hook—whom this reviewer is happy to declare, unselfconsciously, the best of British. The Hook family has farmed in Sussex, England for 250 years, and Steve has survived by staying small, staying local, and staying healthy. Much like raw milk and a long walk in a meadow, The Moo Man, directed by Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier, is delightful and probably good for you, too. (And the cows!)
Nadezha Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich are Pussy Riot, the now-notorious Russian feminist punk-rock collective, imprisoned for anti-religious hooliganism—so beautiful in their defiance and so idiotically courageous. Directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, the marvelous Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer begins with a certain naiveté, as the girls rehearse for their famous act of disruption in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior. And yes, as ragtag as they are, while I would pass over “Kill all Sexists” I would certainly hum along to the anthem they tried to belt out up there on the raised sanctuary in the church: “Mother of God Drive Putin Away.” (Their parents are also all rather wonderful and supportive in a country where it is still risking a lot to stand up and speak out against the State and the cult of power).
The drama is intense (and the indictment fittingly harsh) in Blackfish, a documentary about killer whales in captivity. Tilikum, the orca or killer whale and headliner of the film, remains in captivity and routinely drained of sperm to populate the SeaWorld chain with its star performers. Watching these glorious and intelligent creatures turning on their trainers again and again puts one in a state of constant dread. (“Don’t go in the water!” I wanted to yell at the screen.) A section of clandestinely shot video is, moment to moment, almost morbidly dramatic, showing a near drowning during a show. Footage of young whales being captured 40 years ago yields a terrifying sight: the babies of a pod are separated and snatched, in what marks the beginning of the marine park industry. Poor, spectacular Tilikum with his sad, collapsed dorsal fin has been involved in the deaths of three people. All respect to Dawn Brancheau, who after a 10-year relationship with the magnificent mammals was mauled to death—SeaWorld blamed the incident on her ponytail—and to the (now former) trainers, all thoughtful and kind people, who appear in the film.
Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, the truly heroic, hardworking, passionate, skilled (and poorly paid) public defenders of Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army, deserve standing ovations. Articulate, persuasive and sensitive people all, they go out in service of a larger ideal, one case at a time, although their workload is overwhelmingly heavy. Likewise, props to all of the embattled Wisconsin Union members who are on the front lines in Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Citizen Koch. These are the little people (most of them, ironically—or tellingly? take note, RNC—former Republicans) taking a stand against big money (Citizens United, Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party), winning hearts and minds, but steadily losing ground as we speak.
Finally, I wanted to envelop in a hug all of the people from the Republic of Georgia who populated one marvelous surprise among the festival’s documentaries: The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear. In this mystifying and magical film an unlikely group of fairly random individuals stand before the camera and invite us into their lives. The film feels both irrational and intuitive—director Tinatin Gurchiani apparently had little time and money to spend time with each person. The unique cast of characters and their otherworldly lives produce some mesmerizingly artful moments and some surprising vignettes of high drama. I saw Machine with only one other person at the press screening. We congratulated each other on having been there and seen such a beautiful film, which was rightfully given a jury prize for direction (World Cinema Documentary), “for its original vision, sense of place, luminous humanity.”