Docs at Sundance 2013: Pussy Riot, Google, Heartbreaking Family Stories and More

Docs at Sundance 2013: Pussy Riot, Google, Heartbreaking Family Stories and More

Jan 23, 2013

Many writers covering the Sundance Film Festival look for trends and recurrent themes. I do the same but more specifically with the documentary program. For nonfiction, spotting trends can simply be about seeing which current events are already or finally getting the feature-film treatment. This year, for instance, there’s the quickly turned around Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer and the seemingly old-news stories of 99% -- The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.

Regardless of how contemporary the documentaries at Sundance are, however, there is a certain understanding now that the topics encountered on-screen in Park City in January will be what we’ll be talking about through the year. The festival may have, as it did last year, premiered most of the 2014 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. Other titles will be on critics’ year-end lists. Even having only seen a handful of Sundance selections so far this year, I’m already confident that Stories We Tell and Cutie and the Boxer will be high among my “best of” picks in 11 months.

I’m always interested in the story that Sundance tells us about the current world zeitgeist through its doc programs, but I can’t only look at that main event because the Slamdance Film Festival often offers a contribution to the conversation as well. If you’re going to see Ben Lewis’s Google and the World Brain at Sundance, you may as well also check out Cullen Hoback’s Terms and Conditions May Apply, since both deal with the positive resources of the Internet and how these benefits have come with certain or potential infringements on our rights.

Google is a more focused work, specifically looking at the online superpower’s project of scanning books to create the largest library in the world, let alone on the Web. And that narrowness does cause a lot of redundancy. There’s only so much that can be said of how the endeavor is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s idea of the “world brain,” what its pros and cons are, and what happened when authors and publishers sued Google for scanning copyrighted works without permission. Visually, too, shots of scanners and libraries can only be interesting for so long.

Terms, on the other hand, covers broader territory in tackling the issue of Internet privacy by way of the subject of online agreements. The film addresses our immediate complacency and ignorance when it comes to contracts with companies like Google, Apple and particularly Facebook. Yet its scope doesn’t make Hoback’s film any better than Lewis’s. Terms depends too much on TV and film clips, including snippets from South Park, The Daily Show and even The Net for illustration of and contribution to its arguments. Basically Hoback tells us a lot of what we already know and speculates on a lot of what we already presume, then he caps it all off with a Michael Moore-style ambush at Mark Zuckerberg’s house in order to provide the most obvious and impertinent of ironic points.

Neither of those docs are anywhere near as strong in capturing and addressing the atmosphere of the digital age as the underrated 2012 Slamdance premiere We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, which also in only a few minutes does a better job of explaining the Occupy movement than 99%. I am considerably disappointed with this film, as someone who has taken a great scholarly interest in collaborative documentary and who moderated an event previewing of the film’s crowd-sourced footage way back in November 2011. Perhaps fittingly, 99% is all over the place, unclear in its agenda and ultimately unsuccessful in achieving any goal it might actually have had. It’s too expositional to simply be a record of the events of OWS, yet the talking heads don’t seem sufficient in either their storytelling or their hindsight commentary.

I’m not even sure 99% is a true collaborative film due to how uniformly shot and conventionally structured it is, or in the way it relies so much on a single interview with Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, dominantly revisited throughout. There’s no sense of there being a multitude of voices or visions or perspectives behind the camera even if the accumulated pieces offer impressively embedded views of many of the major moments of the movement. Its sourcing of material isn’t much different than any other doc’s. But in spite of its failed “collaborative” intentions, it’s more generally faulty as a film that means to show and tell of the OWS spirit and action. I don’t get the feeling I encountered that nor came to any greater understanding of the movement locally or globally.

Far more interesting is the multiple perspective approach of Sarah Polley’s already revered Stories We Tell, a personal documentary that primarily sources memories -- rather than footage -- of events in the actress turned filmmaker’s family life. Interviewing her brothers, sisters, father and their friends, Polley winds up with a brilliant exploration of both identity and the documentary form as each is shaped through different versions of truth and points of view, as well as our trust in what and how we are seeing things on-screen.

There are some discoveries made along the way that are best not known before going in, but even if you’re spoiled (I was), the real treat of the film is in its form, more so than in its content. Having debuted months ago and played other festivals previously, Stories We Tell is still one of the hottest and most compelling films of this Sundance and it’s sure to remain a talked about and sought after doc throughout the rest of this year.
 

Less buzzed about but just as deserving as Stories We Tell is Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, my favorite kind of festival discovery. I’d never heard of it going in, knew nothing about it beforehand, and I wound up with a wide smile all the way through as I watched this film about an artistic Japanese family in New York. It combines a verite-style look at this poor and slightly dysfunctional clan with animated sequences based on the drawings of Noriko Shinohara, whose identity has often been defined as wife and “free assistant” to the more famous Ushio Shinohara.

There’s a romantic quality to the film, and it will engulf your heart, yet it’s not very sentimental. In fact, as much as the live-action parts relish in the ways Noriko and Ushio’s relationship works as an adorable and humorous couple offering evidence of the old saying that opposites attract, there’s an overlying air of feminism in the animated sections. Like the work of both Ushio and Noriko, the film has a kind of violent beauty, and like their marriage it’s pretty complicated. Cutie is engaging and wonderful and upsetting and empowering and funny and sad and amazing. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Other notable films I’ve seen include the expectantly heartbreaking Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, about the Oscar-nominated codirector of Restrepo who died covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. Exceptionally well-made by that film’s other codirector, Sebastian Junger, Which Way is structurally simple and understandably celebrational, convincing us of how great it was that Hetherington lived and how tragic it is that he’s gone.

Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army is also rather simple, but it’s a necessary and overdue acknowledgment of the work of public defenders and the taken-for-granted Sixth Amendment through three irresistible stories of Southern lawyers. I also like John Akomfreh’s The Stuart Hall Project, which profiles the British cultural theorist, but have to admit it’s mainly for the academically minded who enjoy a lot of history and philosophy voiced over archive footage.

Of course, there are tons of docs earning strong buzz that I haven’t gotten to see yet. Opening night backup-singer film Twenty Feet from Stardom sounds more riveting than it seems based on what I’ve been told. I’ve seen emotional gushings in response to Blood Brother and God Love Uganda, enormous praise for After Tiller, The Summit and Valentine Road and plenty enough positive reactions to Manhunt, Narco Cultura, Blackfish, Dirty Wars and The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear to believe these are some of the great documentary works to look forward to this year.

Will 2013 be as strong for nonfiction films as 2012? It’s hard to say having only seen a handful of films and only really loving two. Even though the week and a half fest provides much of what we’re to go by as far as the year in docs, as usual it will take me another fest or two to catch up with enough films to make the call. Please, weigh in below on what necessary docs you’ve seen at Sundance 2013 if you went this year.

Categories: Documentary
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