The Past Is Present in Sundance Documentaries; Domestic Cultural Revolutions
by Patricia Thomson
Setting foot in Park City, it’s quickly apparent there’s a strange disconnect between the documentary line-up and the greater world out there. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because of the saturation coverage of Iraq and now Korea. During the festival, there were anti-war protests, more empty chemical warheads discovered, and talk of exile for Saddam. But with the exception of “Iran, Veiled Appearances” from Belgium, tucked away in the new World Documentary section, it’s like the guests are ignoring the elephant in the living room.
The reason is both logistical and cultural. The average independent documentary takes about seven years to complete (half spent in pursuit of funding), so timeliness isn’t an option for documentarians who aren’t on a broadcaster’s payroll.
But there is also something inherently American about the way politics is manifest here. Domestic cultural movements, rather than geopolitics, are the focus. And these topics come through the back door — presented as biography or through the long lens of history. Numerous films look back at the cultural revolution that gripped this country thirty years ago. There are films that touch on the Civil Rights movement (“The Murder of Emmett Till,” “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”), women’s lib (“The Pill”), the anti-war movement (“The Weather Underground”), the impact of the counterculture on individuals’ lives (“The Boys of 2nd Street Park,” “The Same River Twice”) and on Hollywood (“A Decade Under the Influence”). It’s baby boomer history — including, one might argue, Oliver Stone’s feature-length interview with Fidel Castro, “Commandante.”
Of course, the ’60s didn’t resolve American attitudes towards race, sex, and war. And the best of these documentaries resonate like a tuning fork with today’s cultural climate.
No one can watch “The Weather Underground,” a portrait of the Vietnam War’s most militant resistance group, without thinking about today’s nascent protest movement. The same questions apply: What if peaceful protest isn’t enough? What if the government escalates its use of force despite public sentiment? What if the government breaks the law to suppress dissent; do you act in kind? If you have a righteous cause, does the end justify the means? These were questions faced by the Weathermen, a splinter group from Students for a Democratic Society. In Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s engrossing film — a festival favorite — a half dozen Weathermen explain why they took the path to violence, bombing the Capital, courthouses, police precincts, and more, and mull over the rightness of their actions. The film’s timing is perfect, since those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
Sex and race appear in two strong entries airing on PBS’s “American Experience.” As Chana Gazit’s “The Pill” notes, the sale of contraceptives and even the distribution of information about birth control was criminalized in some states as recently as the 1950s. That’s worth remembering in these days of GOP agenda-setting, as is the pragmatic politics of the odd quartet that brought the Pill into being. There was reproduction rights advocate Margaret Sanger; a scientist who had already been ostracized as a ‘mad scientist’ for performing the world’s first in-vitro fertilization; a rich fellow suffragette who funded the project; and an infertility doctor who performed the human trials and was a devout Catholic to boot. Gazit’s fascinating account of how these strange bedfellows changed the rulebook for women should caution and inspire all who hold reproductive rights dear.
Like “The Pill,” Stanley Nelson’s “The Murder of Emmett Till” doesn’t break ground stylistically, but it expertly uses a tried-and-true form. Nelson has a way with the telling detail and skillfully reanimates the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy killed for being too cheeky with a store-owner’s wife. Till’s name has entered the history books as the spark that lit the Civil Rights movement. But in Nelson’s hands, the icon comes alive and his story is as vivid as today’s front page news — his life and death, the murderers’ acquittal, their confession in Look magazine, the politicians’ inertia, the hue and cry of blacks, and the brave action of Rosa Parks 100 days later. The film reverberates for days.
Two of the documentaries catching buzz jump to the present with a look at child abuse. One is “Stevie,” a riveting film by “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James. The filmmaker had been a Big Brother in college to his eponymous subject, so his relationship to Stevie — a troubled child who grew into a very messed-up adult — is loaded with personal history. When Stevie faces criminal charges for child molestation, James plunges headlong into heightened family tensions and the legal labyrinth, juggling his role as filmmaker and Big Brother. It’s an honest portrayal of the choices faced by documentarians who are close to their subjects, and this secondary theme is as absorbing as the nuanced depiction of Stevie’s sorry life.
Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” captivated audiences with its “Rashomon”-like story of a Long Island school teacher and his son who were convicted for molesting a long line of students in their private computer classes. What sets this film apart is the treasure trove of home videos to which Jarecki was given access. Happy days are there, but so too are venomous fights and raw scenes of the family buckling under pressure. Even more disturbing are the contradictory versions of this sordid tale. Did they or didn’t they? We’re left to judge. Like the best documentaries here, it puts audiences on the hook.