The buying frenzy that has engulfed a number of nonfiction films at Sundance 2008 is all the more remarkable for the fact that 'A,' everyone was predicting a hands-off approach to docs after a lackluster 2007 for theatrical documentary and 'B,' not a single narrative film -- as of this writing early on Tuesday -- had landed a distribution deal. While it's a well-worn idiom that the Documentary Competition lineup at Sundance is usually superior to the Dramatic Competition, that gulf feels especially profound this year. In fact, a number of industry insiders have been saying that many of the nonfiction titles in the Slamdance lineup are superior to the narratives here.
Amongst the Sundance doc titles, there's been nearly universal acclaim for a number of titles, with four seeming to stand out -- Nanette Burstein's "American Teen," Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," Margaret Brown's "The Order of Myths" and the non-competition "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," directed by Sacha Gervasi.
The "Polanski" film struck a deal early in the fest with the Weinstein Company and HBO, while "American Teen" has been the subject of fevered deal speculation since it unveiled on Saturday, but as of this writing had yet to close its deal.
"The Order of Myths"
Many here were looking forward to Margaret Brown's second feature after her well-regarded music doc "Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt," but Brown surpassed expectations with her remarkably assured "The Order of Myths." Beautifully shot by Lee Daniel and Michael Simmonds and expertly edited by Brown, Michael Taylor and Geoffrey Richman, the film examines the time-honored tradition of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, where celebrations remain segregated between white and black residents.
With a deft, observant touch, Brown does what several recent acclaimed nonfiction films have done ("Street Fight" and "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" among them) by approaching issues of race from a side angle. But Brown surpasses her predecessors with a level of craft that stuns. But it's clear from screenings here that "The Order of Myths" has the potential to spur conversations about race relationships that are simmering beneath the surface.
At a Q&A following the film's second public screening, a spirited debate broke out when one of the film's white subjects -- Brittain Youngblood -- described growing up in Mobile with two families, her immediate family and the black caretakers who helped raise her. Filmmaker Michelange Quay, whose "Eat, For this is My Body," is screening in Sundance's New Frontier Section, spoke up and argued that Youngblood's black family were, in fact, subordinates. As Youngblood got emotional, Joseph Roberson, the king of the African-American Mardi Gras, rose to her defense.
Speaking to indieWIRE after the screening, Brown agreed that the film gave audience members a forum to discuss issues of race. "One of the purposes of the film is to open it up to talk, not to provide an answer, because I wouldn't know what that is," Brown said. "The open nature of the film allows you to bring your own experiences, your own feelings and thoughts to it."
"Anvil: The Story of Anvil"
There was good word-of-mouth coming into the festival for Sacha Gervasi's "Anvil: The Story of Anvil" and the film has not disappointed, providing a welcome relief from some of the more serious nonfiction films at the festival.
Telling the tale of a Canadian heavy metal band that apparently rivaled Megadeth, Anthrax and Metallica in the burgeoning days of metal, the film is a hilarious and surprisingly touching story of how two musicians -- friends since high school -- have fought to keep making music even as they reach 50 and as they've watched their contemporaries reach stratospheric levels of fame and fortune.
The film has frequently been referred to as "a real life 'Spinal Tap'" and, in fact, there are several deliberate references to the 1984 mockumentary classic (not the least of which is the fact that Anvil's drummer is named Robb Reiner). A couple of these spot-on homages straddle the line between brilliant and contrived, such as a visit to the real Stonehenge, but the film is so fun that it seems petty to complain.
More unexpected are the emotional touches that come later in the film as Reiner and lead singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow nearly separate (for what the film leads us to believe may be the umpteenth time) after a nasty fight, only to reconcile in an impromptu therapy session that rivals anything in "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster."
"I.O.U.S.A," "Nerakhoon" and more
In addition to "Order," "Anvil," "Teen" and "Polanski," there's been generally positive response to a number of other competition docs, including Patrick Creadon's "I.O.U.S.A." and "Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)," the debut film from acclaimed cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who co-directs with subject Thavisouk Phrasavath.
While all seem to be in agreement that the cinematography is as good as one would expect in a Kuras-helmed feature, there were some who wished someone other than Phrasavath would have edited the film. But others felt the film -- which describes the survival of Phrasavath's family during the U.S. air bombing of Laos.
"I.O.U.S.A." is an incredibly timely document -- in fact, it feels like it should air on television tonight, rather than go through a lengthy festival and theatrical run -- and does a good job of explaining the more complicated issues that surrounds America's growing national debt.
The festival has seemed more subdued in 2008 than in previous years, with several high profile companies forgoing parties this year. But there have still been a number of events that have drawn together the documentary and independent film community in Park City, including the SunDoc party on Saturday night and the announcement of the first annual Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking on Sunday afternoon (Full disclosure: I am one of the co-chairs of the latter event.)
In addition, a number of smaller gatherings have been popping up nearly spontaneously, including several get-togethers at the "American Teen" condo, where A&E Indie Films has been hosting nearly nightly informal parties.
Tuesday promises more opportunities to mix and mingle as the Sundance Channel, the International Documentary Association and Film Independent host back-to-back-to-back soirees.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.