PARK CITY 2000: Bright Docs - "Night's Journey" and "Dark Days," and "Faye" Gets Facelift, Jesus, Too
by Patricia Thomson
(indieWIRE/2.3.2000) -- When all is said and done, Sundance 2000 was a very good year for documentaries. Although lacking an on-your-feet crowd-pleaser on the level of "Hoop Dreams," the line-up was consistently solid, with nearly every film attracting a circle of admirers. As juror Jon Else recounted at the awards podium, "We had 16 documentaries in competition, and immediately tried to narrow it down to a short list. We came up with 13."
South Africa Now
The film that finally landed on top of the heap was "Long Night's Journey into Day," by documentary duo Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman. In giving out the Grand Jury Prize, Else explained, the jurors were looking for a film with "a human story and a brilliant job of storytelling. Only when these two wires cross do you really get a brilliant piece of work."
"Long Night's Journey" started humbly enough. One day in the car, the filmmakers heard a news piece on National Public Radio about the reconciliation hearings that were underway in South Africa. To help heal the country after the 40-year trauma of apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu proposed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This official body would have the power to grant amnesty to those who committed crimes under apartheid in exchange for full disclosure -- and hopefully signs of human remorse. Over 700 cases have been filed.
"Wow, I sure hope someone is making a film about this," Hoffman said over breakfast a few weeks later, after reading a related article in the New York Times. "There was silence," she recalls. "When I looked up and saw Frances' face, I knew that expression . . . and I didn't like it," she adds with a laugh. A few weeks later, sitting on a plane to South African with a Sony VX1000 in hand and $10,000 from a private donor, Hoffman confessed to her partner, "I didn't mean it had to be us!"
The footage they brought back with them packs an emotional wallop. "Long Night's Journey into Day" follows four of these hearings, involving both black and white victims and perpetrators. Here, at one of the most significant junctures in South African history, the personal and the political are inextricably intertwined. The film takes us deep into the human heart, where searing hatred and healing forgiveness do battle as mothers face the killers of their children. We feel their pain. But we also witness the miraculous transformation of a country as it brings closure to an ugly chapter, one case at a time.
Bought by Cinemax just before the festival, the film will begin its theatrical run in late March at New York's Film Forum. "We plan to spend the next year making sure this film gets out around the world," says Hoffman, speaking like a true documentary trooper.
Friction in Nonfiction
The other documentary that topped the awards list was Marc Singer's "Dark Days," which nabbed the Audience Award, the Freedom of Expression Award, and shared an Excellence in Cinematography Award with Susan Todd and Andrew Young's "Americanos: Latino Life in the United States." Though a dark horse coming into the festival (Singer had never previously used a camera, and recruited the homeless as his crew), "Dark Days" became an emotional favorite among audiences and fellow filmmakers. [See indieWIRE's profile at: </onthescene/fes_00Sund_000122_darkdays.html>]
Another popular favorite that somehow slipped through the awards net was "Sound and Fury." One of the most intense dramas of the festival, "Sound and Fury" looks at the debate raging inside the deaf community over cochlear implants, a medical breakthrough that may precipitate the demise of traditional sign language and deaf culture. As the title indicates, there's fury aplenty in this story, as well as pride, fear, defensiveness, and parental concern. "You're such a lousy daughter," signs an anguished deaf mother when learning her grandchild will have an implant. "A mother should love a child the way he is." Her deaf friends mutter in sympathy, "He'll be a Frankenstein."
Director Josh Aronson started out filming an array of deaf subjects, including a law professor who was able to fool colleagues and girlfriend through skillful lip-reading, and a deaf actress who cried when she gave birth to a hearing child, then rejoiced when he went deaf at age two. Promising material, but as Aronson and producer Roger Weisberg proceeded, they realized that all the medical, emotional, and identity issues surrounding cochlear implants congealed in one story -- that of the Artinians, an extended family who has deafness scattered throughout three generations. Though closely knit, they are being torn apart by the differing choices two brothers have made for their deaf children.
In the end, Aronson and Weisberg bit the bullet, cast aside the early dailies, and narrowed their focus to the Artinians, bringing us deep inside the debate as family members draw lines in the sand. It was a smart choice. "Sound and Fury" is gripping, not only because of its fascinating subject, but it's also proof that conflict lies at the core of any dramatic story, whether fiction or otherwise.
The Eyes Have It
In contrast, there was only one side to "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," and that was Tammy's. Less a documentary than a big, sloppy wet kiss, the biopic nonetheless had a large following among festival-goers. "Does religion or the camera drive Tammy Faye?" asked one audience member. "Does it matter?" the filmmakers responded. "This shows you can be both religious and