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Sundance Curiosities: Domestic Warfare Will Generate Controversy at This Year’s Festival

Sundance Curiosities: Domestic Warfare Will Generate Controversy at This Year's Festival

Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to preview films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.

This year, the U.S. Documentary Competition features the common theme of domestic warfare and corrupt lawmakers in areas that may be closer to home than many American viewers think. 

While documentary films such as “Cartel Land” and “Western” deal with the war on Mexican drug cartels, other filmmakers focus on stories of racial tension, protest, and communal revolt. With wars breaking out and being fought across the country, documentarians are increasingly focused on bringing audiences to the frontlines.
Directed by acclaimed photojournalist Lyric R. Cabral and filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe, “(T)error” is promises an unprecedented look at a counterterrorism sting investigation in real-time. Shot over the course of two years, it follows an anonymous FBI informant living a double life. As the film progresses, revelations about the protagonist’s past affiliations come back to haunt him in shocking ways — ultimately engendering his role at the FBI. 
As his relationship with his target begins to weaken, and the pressure from his overseers begins to build, “(T)error” is said to explore the fragile relationships between an overbearing government and the individuals tasked with serving it. Adapting the suspenseful tone of a spy thriller, the documentary attempts to provide insight into the flaws of our government, shining light on issues of racial profiling, entrapment, domestic surveillance and even free speech — all while attempting to ground the public understandings of terrorism in a post-9/11 America. 
This presumably intimate take on the domestic war on terror isn’t the only film attempting to explore the battles being fought on the homefront. Last year, an even bigger war had broken out, as protestors clashed with highly militarized police force in Ferguson, Missouri. Racial tensions within the justice system was at an all-time high last year, with protests and riots becoming an everyday occurrence. With the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases still fresh on our minds, Marc Silver’s new documentary “3 ½ Minutes” couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
Silver, whose first documentary feature “Who is Dayani Cristal?” debuted at Sundance in 2013, presents a lesser-known case of racial violence as he tells the story of Jordan Davis — an African-American teenager killed by a white male at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida back in 2012. Silver attempts to peer beyond the headlines and humanize the victim with emotional accounts from his family. The film reportedly explores racism, systematic pitfalls of the law system, and the subjectivity of the Florida Stand-Your-Ground self-defense laws, which were pivotal in judging the controversial case of Trayvon Martin (which also took place in 2012). 
Davis’ story now joins a number of other crimes against African American men that continue to create outrage and lead to further protests. However, while the world watches these much broader battles being fought through the media, many smaller revolts are breaking out in places that don’t receive as much attention.
A more blatant war zone would be the one painted by directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher Walker in their new documentary. Last summer, the duo started a crowdfunding campaign in order to film what appeared to be the beginnings of a hostile takeover of a small southern town. Leith, North Dakota is a tight community with a population of 29. When a new resident, white supremacist Craig Cobb, started purchasing land in the area — with the intention of turning Leith into a safe haven for white supremacists, tensions begin to grow within the community. 
While holding a supremacy rally, the town becomes overrun with neo-Nazis, and the resulting chaos involves daunting standoffs between Cobb’s band of white supremacists and the peaceful residents who refuse to succumb to his authority. Yet ever attempt to remove Cobb from the town is thwarted due to his legal rights. It’s a horrific conundrum with major ramifications for everyone involved — one of several bound to generate endless discussion at this year’s Sundance.

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