If American nonfiction storytelling is breaking new ground in the marketplace (see the success of "Making a Murderer" or "Amy"), it’s surprising how much this year’s Sundance Film Festival reflected the dominance of the status quo.
Old-guard broadcasters were everywhere: HBO Documentary Films had a whopping seven films in the official selection ("Unlocking the Cage," "Jim: The James Foley Story," "Suited," "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures," "How To Let Go of the World," "Nothing Left Unsaid," "Becoming Mike Nichols"); PBS’s American Masters premiered three ("Maya Angelou and Still I Rise," "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," "Richard Linklater – Dream is Destiny"); and Disney-owned A&E IndieFilms had two ("Author: The JT Leroy Story," "Life, Animated").
Of course, this is largely a function of where the money is flowing into U.S. documentary production, for better or for worse. This is not to criticize any of these films, or even to say that they are old-fashioned or unexciting. Roger Ross Williams’ wonderful "Life, Animated," for example, tells a surprisingly poignant and partly animated portrait of an autistic young man who learned to speak and function in society by learning about the world through animated Disney flicks. Likewise, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennabaker’s "Unlocking the Cage" may come from that now conventional tradition of "direct cinema," but it’s still a compelling courtroom drama and revealing look at the law. Judging by critical and audience reception, other docs from this crop such as "Jim," "Normal Lear" and "Author: The JT Story" (which was acquired by Amazon for theatrical release) will go far.
But shouldn’t Sundance, which values independence and has gone to great lengths in recent years to scale-back crass commercialism in its dramatic selections, apply this same intense regard for indie-ness to its U.S. documentary programming? (How many "famous people" docs can one festival take?) If HBO had seven films at Sundance, that’s seven documentary slots that could have gone to films not funded by Time Warner. Perhaps, as docs have grown in budget and importance, the festival will need to establish an analogous "NEXT" section (which currently exists only for lower budget dramatic features) for docs? "Next Nonfiction" isn’t a bad title.
That’s probably not the answer, given there are already too many films vying for attention in Park City. And there’s already a robust selection of far-flung, adventurous films in the New Frontiers (i.e., the beautifully crafted "Notes on Blindness") and World Documentary Competition sections (i.e. Poland or Afghanistan’s sweeping and cinematic portraits of aimless youths, respectively, "All These Sleepless Nights" and "The Land of the Enlightened"). But more equanimity within Sundance’s nonfiction marketplace would be good for emerging U.S.-based doc filmmakers — which the festival, admittedly, has been supporting.
Indeed, it was not coincidental that just days before the festival began that the Sundance Institute announced its first "Art of Nonfiction" Initiative to support inventive artistic practice in documentaries, along with the program’s first fellows, Margaret Brown ("The Order of Myths"); Robert Greene ("Kate Plays Christine"); and Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq ("These Birds Walk"). Ever since taking the job in late 2013, Sundance Documentary Film Program chief Tabitha Jackson has been beating the drum loudly for arty nonfiction cinema. (As she told Indiewire this year, "I’d like the conversation around nonfiction film to be as exciting as the form itself.")
A few years ago, Robert Greene’s stunning docu-fiction hybrid "Kate Plays Christine" would likely have been relegated to Sundance’s New Frontier sidebar (or not programmed at all). Now screening as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition, it says a lot about where the festival and audiences are willing to go with a nonfiction film. An increasingly absorbing meditation on the strains of acting, the pain of suicide, and the responsibilities of representation, "Kate Plays Christine" was a stand-out in the U.S. doc competition, but also because there was nothing else quite like it. Maybe a large broadcaster will fund Greene’s next project, but at least for this year’s festival, he was still an outsider.
Another film in the U.S. Documentary Competition that comes from a different world is Penny Lane’s "NUTS!," which tells the outrageous animated story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric mogul who pioneered an alleged cure for impotence (using goat testicles) and launched the most powerful radio station in the world. Some of the film’s best-animated sequences evoke the wild cut-out collages of Martha Colburn, but the main appeal of "NUTS!" lies in its fascinating portrait of self-delusion and, in some ways, class struggle — of a poor outcast fighting against the establishment for recognition and acceptance.
The documentary world is at a similar crossroads. It has always been second-class when compared with the narrative industry; it has largely functioned outside of Hollywood influence (with a few rare exceptions: Michael Moore, DisneyNature and pop-concert docs). But the more that nonfiction flourishes in the marketplace, the harder it may be for truly independent documentary filmmakers to thrive.
Then again, the most significant story to hit the documentary industry at this year’s Sundance wasn’t any single bit of theatrical acquisition news. (Okay, for the record: Magnolia got Herzog’s internet film "Lo and Behold," which should have been better; IFC Films acquired "Weiner," a rip-roaring campaign doc; Sony Classics bought the refreshingly all-archival Frank Zappa doc; Netflix took "Audrie & Daisey," and there are big pacts in the works for "Tickled" and "Life, Animated," among others.)
But the bigger deal was the announcement that financier Grosvenor Park Media was launching a major venture to invest in nonfiction films, with independent company Submarine Entertainment tapped to manage creative development, production and sales of the projects. According to Submarine’s Josh Braun, the fund is in the "healthy seven-figures."
It’s too early to say what types of documentaries the new entity will back, but judging from the company’s past projects together ("Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present," "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict") and Submarine’s Sundance slate (which included not just the Norman Lear and Herzog docs, but also "NUTS!" and the bold "All These Sleepless Nights"), it sounds like it’s time to rejoice. But the news also indicates the greater financial forces that are being brought to bear on nonfiction filmmakers and programmers.
And yet, on the brighter side, the Submarine/Grosvenor enterprise may also embolden a wide range of independent docs that could rival that being funded by the establishment.
Referencing an eclectic mix of docs the company has supported, from "Blackfish" and "Citizenfour" to the more experimental essay film "Los Angeles Plays Itself," Braun told Indiewire that the company will continue to be driven by passion as much as commercial concerns. "The dream scenario is you pick films that you love that are great works of art and that are going to make money in the marketplace," he said.
We can all share that dream. But will it stay a reality?