As a documentary fan and critic who discovered so many great nonfiction films at Sundance last year, including some of 2011’s very best, it’s been extremely painful not being in Park City this week. To make things easier I could have tried to ignore the festival, stayed off Twitter, not read reviews, definitely not researched and talked about films ahead of time let alone written about the resulting most anticipated docs in my last Doc Talk column. Hearing enormously positive buzz on The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man, Detropia, The Queen of Versailles, The Ambassador, West of Memphis and others is driving me absolutely bonkers.
It’s like being a comic book geek under house arrest while The Dark Knight Rises hits theaters, hearing that it actually exceeds expectations and knowing it will be months before you have a chance to see it. Yes, right now, The Imposter is my Dark Knight Rises. Searching for Sugar Man is my Hunger Games -- I guess the hunger issue doc Finding North should be my Hunger Games, but I’m not seeing enough hype on that one. Here’s an appropriate one: West of Memphis is my Hobbit. I could go on and on. The Ambassador is my The Dictator.
Thanks to some gracious publicists and filmmakers, I haven’t been totally in the dark this year. While it’s difficult to maneuver due to sales agents and potential or eventual distributors, I managed to acquire access to a number of docs screening in Park City this month. Most are Slamdance titles, which I rounded up in a preview at the Documentary Channel Blog. Never underestimate the smaller fest, which spawned some of our favorite docs, such as Dear Zachary and The King of Kong.
While I’m not sure of any successes on the level of those films, thiis year I really love the transgender teen prostitute film Kelly, mostly for its lively subject. I think HBO should follow last year’s Superheroes buy with either that or the seductive porn industry love story, Danland. I’m also a fan of Getting Up, an inspiring tale of a street artist with ALS that’s kind of like Exit Through the Gift Shop meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I think it’s perfect for Oscilloscope. Perhaps Money Mark, who scored the film, can help make that happen?
As for Sundance docs, I’ve seen only three. Unfortunately more were promised only to be later denied out of...well, I’m not exactly sure how that works. One of the films I discuss below was even sent to me prematurely before being recalled. Maybe someone will get in trouble for letting my review slip through the cracks. But I don’t see why the attention would be unwanted. It’s not like any of these docs are the talk of the town right now. And it’s not as if I dislike them. Without further ado, here’s my slight coverage of the docs of Sundance 2012:
The Other Dream Team
Oddly enough, this is my first experience with filmmaker Marius A. Markevicius, a Sundance regular who co-produced last year’s big narrative winner, Like Crazy, as well as Drake Doremus’ 2010 entry, Douchebag. Now he makes his feature directorial debut with this documentary about the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, which came in third place behind the Gold-medal-winning all-stars of the U.S. “Dream Team.” The festival’s film guide makes it sound more focused on that summer in Barcelona than it actually is. The doc is a sort of underdog sports drama, but not like anything we’re used to. The Other Dream Team is about a victory much greater than winning an international tournament. The Bronze trinkets the Lithuanian players received represent a triumph forty years in the making.
There is a minor issue of focus throughout the film, especially if you go in thinking that it’s primarily about the Barcelona games. The dramatized remake, if there ever is one, will likely center on the years between 1988, when much of the Lithuanian team played for the Gold-winning Soviets, and 1992, when their final match-up after losing to the Americans was against the former Soviet states making up the CIS Unified Team. Those four years also include their hook up with the Grateful Dead as celebrity sponsor, complete with tie-dyed jerseys.
To properly document the story of the “other dream team,” however, we need to go back and learn the histories of basketball in Lithuania and of the nation’s occupation throughout the Cold War. That’s the only way we could understand what the win at Barcelona really means. Otherwise it’s just a basic sports movie in which the game is all that matters. A parallel narrative in the film follows a more current story of a young Lithuanian athlete with NBA prospects, and while it’s mostly a thin, extraneous diversion, it’s also an original means of laying out a story’s prologue alongside and parallel to the main events.
The Law in These Parts
If The Other Dream Team makes a case for reaching back into history to properly tell an otherwise simple story, this documentary from director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz utilizes history in an effort to understand an otherwise complicated series of stories. The award-winning film is a self-reflexive and aesthetically austere work that looks into the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the two intricate and disconnected legal systems that contribute to the conflicts in that region. But unlike many docs on this topic, The Law in These Parts is concentrated on the lawmakers rather than the law-breakers.
Alexandrowicz, in shadowed but audible appearance, interviews -- or interrogates -- numerous retired Israeli military men, all former judges, prosecutors or legal advisors, in order to better grasp the framework and 45-year execution of the law. In a way it’s to simplify some of the documents the filmmaker has come to be familiar with in his own research. As he reads some of these materials to his cooperative subjects, in voice-over he summarizes for us in layman’s terms. And he requests for the interviewees to speak in easily comprehensible terms as well.
I must admit that I both dozed off and zoned out at times during the film, so it’s not that accessible for anyone with little interest or familiarity with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But it so perfectly comes together in the end as a rare human rights issue film that’s cerebral rather than emotional in its approach. Alexandrowicz acknowledges and admits to the usual faults of cinema, that he’ll end this film and go on to another, that we’ll go back to everyday life when the credits are over, but that the true person of interest in this cause doc will remain unjustly imprisoned. The film is quite direct in the end, and like with the climax of The Other Dream Team we feel like we’ve been on a long yet necessary road to get to the real point.
But I have a great appreciation for the self-aware historicism driving The Law of These Parts, particularly because of how the interviewees respond to many of Alexandrowicz’s questions. They avoid certain analysis of whether decisions were right or wrong with even such far-reaching hindsight, making claims that such answers are for the historians or history to determine. As if that’s not one of the functions of this documentary. Others tell the filmmaker he’ll have to ask someone else about this or that, or they reject a reasonable line of questioning for being too theoretical. At times I wanted to laugh at the abstract absurdity of what the film was unraveling before me, but it’s not really a humorous matter at all.
Because of the way Alexandrowicz employs archival footage played forward and backward, the latter at fast speeds, I began to consider the historicist nature of documentary as akin to time-lapse photography. Another doc at Sundance, one of my most anticipated that I haven’t yet seen, uses time-lapse to show the effects of climate change on glaciers in order to condense a lengthy story as means to see its point more clearly. I think The Law of These Parts is somewhat similar in its compression of time and material records to provide a clearer perception of what appears to be a major civil rights issue.
For a taste of The Law of These Parts, check out Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's new Op-Doc short film The Justice of Occupation on the New York Times website.
Love Free or Die: How the Bishop of New Hampshire is Changing the World
After last year’s Sundance Film Festival I’ve been more interested in and anxious for hopeful documentaries, like Steve James’ powerful film The Interrupters. This is one of the reasons I love the upbeat water-crisis doc Last Call at the Oasis (in theaters May 4) and why I now recommend Love Free or Die, a film about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop. An outcast in the greater international organization of the Episcopal Church, he leads the fight for acceptance of LGBT worshippers and clergymen as well as the recognition of and permission to officiate same-sex marriages, in the U.S. at least.
The documentary, directed by Sundance-winning filmmaker Macky Alston (Family Name), is nothing special in form or style, but the familiar point of social interest is one that never gets old. And it’s just nice to watch a film about a gay clergyman that isn’t about one accused of rape or sexual abuse, to encounter a positively focused documentary addressing more of the advances and accomplishments rather than dwelling on the persecution. Documentaries in favor of a cause don’t have to be so daunting in their call for activism and attention. In fact, they don’t even need to call for heroes so much as present them, a method based in inspiration and encouragement over urgency and pressure.
And Robinson is a highly compelling and motivational leader on his own, no surprise given his position, his likability being of the kind that doesn’t require much pizazz on the part of the film itself. Alston follows and observes him in his home, on a trip to England for the Lambeth Conference, where he deals with homophobia from superiors in the Anglican Church and from hecklers at a service he’s invited to lead, to Obama’s inauguration, where he delivered the kickoff invocation, and to the General Convention in California, where he’s a face for progressive change in the religious organization. Within seconds of meeting him on screen you’ll be captivated by his goodness and strength, in tears when he’s under threat and when he’s triumphant.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.