Rearing Their Underdog Heads: Sundance Docs, 1999
By Amy Goodman
It is difficult to start a wrap-up article about this year's Sundance documentaries without employing the words "year of the documentary." Since the festival's end, the vast majority of critics and festival attendees who are lamenting a disappointing crop of dramatic features have found comfort in this year's comparatively bountiful nonfiction film program. Films like "American Movie," "Regret to Inform," "On the Ropes," and Errol Morris's latest, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." have been much acclaimed and even the more controversial docs - like "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story" (the first Sundance film to sell out its screenings) and the Hughes brothers' "American Pimp" - were as anticipated and debated as some Dramatic Competition buzz films.
"In most marketplaces, documentaries are considered second class citizens," observed "American Hollow" director Rory Kennedy. Echoing the words of countless Sundance '99 documentarians, she contends that the Sundance Film Festival is "one of the few places where docs are on the same playing field with dramas." It is safe to say, in fact, that while Sundance's documentary programming has been consistently strong for years, this may be the first year it outshone its typically shinier dramatic competition.
There was a pretty wide range of subject matter covered in this year's docs - from sex to war to black newspapers, Tuvan throat singing, the Internet, opera stagehands, and a new, national self-examination category, the American documentary. While there was a variety of documentary forms represented - personal explorations, historical explorations, portraits, and socio-political fare -- there was a noticeable lack of formal inventiveness. Most films fulfilled their appropriate quota of interview, archival footage, and verite; most treated their subject matter as honestly and reverently as possible. Few, however, offered aesthetic, technological, or ideological innovations or risks.
"Megacities," a documentary in the World Cinema section which received minimal press and drew smaller crowds, was one of the few docs that pushed limits - in this case, of reenactment and film poetry. Introducing the refreshing, original talent of Austrian filmmaker, Michael Glawogger, the film leads us slowly through the most squalid, impoverished communities of Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow and New York, directly into the worlds of some of these communities' most destitute inhabitants. What we expect to find is downtrodden, hopeless, horribly poor people; instead, with a masterfully subtle touch, Glawogger shows us beauty, spirit, laughter, and the chance to see beyond external circumstances to an optimistic picture of humanity. While some reenactments used in order to illustrate the lifestyles of certain characters detract from the documentary integrity of the film, as a whole the film is daring, thought-provoking and beautiful portrait of misery.
"It's so hard to get people to look at serious films, to think about things that are painful," said Barbara Sonneborn, producer-director of "Regret to Inform," a documentary about another kind of suffering. The first film about the Vietnam war to assume the point of view of soldiers' widows, "Regret to Inform" gives new insight into a tragic American experience that has inspired countless artistic representations. Contextualized by Sonneborn's journey to the spot in Vietnam where her childhood sweetheart and first husband died almost thirty years ago, the film is a compilation of interviews with American and Vietnamese widows. These previously unheard voices are edited into one moving, human story of loss and forgiveness. The documentary jury awarded "Regret to Inform" for its direction (Sonneborn) and for the hypnotizing cinematography of Emiko Omori, who also directed, produced, and shot "Rabbit in the Moon," an equally exquisite, personally-inspired documentary about Japanese internment camps during WWII. "Return with Honor," a film about the American POW's experience directed by Academy Award winners Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders ("Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision"), is the third film in Sundance's triptych of ambitious, sobering films which document the suffering of twentieth century warfare.
The idea that documentaries are first and foremost "serious" films, however, was disproved yet again by this year's Grand Prize winner, "American Movie" and the Audience Award winner, "Ghengis Blues." Both of these films are portraits of charismatic artists (and both films came to Sundance with their publicity-getting subjects), but they have something that a pure portrait piece doesn't necessarily have - a powerful, arc-providing narrative, replete with that necessary tenant of narrative filmmaking, dramatic tension. These are, first and foremost, narrative documentaries.
The otherwise inconsistent pacing of "Ghengis Blues," a film about blues guitarist Paul Pena's trip to the Central Asian country of Tuva, is saved by the dramatic tension inherent in a Tuvan throat-singing contest in which Pena takes part. By the time the film's narrative reaches its denouement, it is apparent that the film is at its best in the preparation for the contest and the throes of the competition, and at its worst when it lingers on conventional, talking heads interviews used primarily at the beginning of the film to frame the action. The film, directed by brothers Roko and Adrian Belic, was rumored to draw standing ovations and general catharsis from a few crowds.
The dramatic tension inherent in "American Movie" stems from the question, "Will Mark Borchardt, the subject of the film, make his short film or not?" The stakes are extremely high for Mark - and for the audience - because Mark is a loveable underdog, a truly original character, a wise fool who is totally obsessed with his quest. Plus, he lives so deep in the Midwest that the landscape is almost exotic and his dream of directing movies seems all the more impossible. (In fact, after a hysterical, trying process, he did complete his film, "Coven," which a few people were lucky enough to catch at a specially added midnight screening.) "American Movie," produced and directed by Chris Smith and Sarah Price, is decidedly the sleeper of this year's festival.
According to Smith, the filmmakers "didn't really hear anything from distributors after the first or second screenings; we weren't overwhelmed by calls and offers until after our third screening. I think they were just letting the movie sink in." After the third screening of the film, Smith, Price, and the Sloss Law folks who represented the film contended with three offers and decided to sell the film to Sony Pictures Classics for "close to a million dollars," which definitely makes the sale of "American Movie" one of the best for documentaries in recent years. Aside from adding cache to docs at Sundance this year, "American Movie" is exciting because it achieves one of the highest purposes of any art; it reflects its audience.
Two other "American" movies, "American Hollow" and "American Pimp," are reflections of Americans whom the general population don't encounter too often. "American Hollow," an HBO doc which will screen at the Film Forum in May, is Rory Kennedy's thoughtful, stirring portrait of a tight-knit, poor, agrarian family who has lived deep in the hidden crevices of Appalachia for almost a century. Aside from revealing the complex relationships and powerful characters in the family, the film is a reminder of a uniquely American way of life - dominated by family, hard work, and the land - that is being undermined by a more modern, gentrified existence.
Allen and Albert Hughes, co-directors and producers of "American Pimp," are the first filmmakers to get nearly unlimited access to one of the last factions of the population that remains too taboo for the mainstream press. The Hughes, creators of such urban dramas as "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," have high hopes for their first documentary effort, which seems reasonable since there is a lot of inherent interest in any documentary about sex and race. Unfortunately, the film prefers often repetitive exposition, interviews, and aesthetic style to the multi-dimensional issues at hand; the filmmakers refuse to truly mettle with issues of sexuality, physical abuse, and drug addiction which have always been tied to pimps and prostitution. Instead, these issues were skimmed over or flatly denied, and there was too little verite footage for the audience to explore the issues on its own.
The other ultra-hyped sex doc at Sundance, "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," suffered from a similar failure to explore some of the most compelling issues at hand. It was incredibly frustrating to me, for example, that in a film about a woman who has sex with 251 men in ten hours, the questions, "How did it feel? What were the effects of the act on your body?" were never asked; just like in pornography, the physical experience of the woman seemed beside the point. The fact that the filmmaker, Gough Lewis, had a sexual relationship with his subject was also left out. Instead, Lewis edited together examples of the emotional havoc and self-styled feminism of Annabel Chong. The footage is interesting because Chong is an intelligent and complicated person, but Lewis' portrait of Chong is hardly subjective, extremely manipulative, and fails to fearlessly question the most vital, subconscious forces at work in this conflicted soul.
Less sensationalistic docs which stood out at the fest include the historical doc, "Hitchcock, Selznick, and the End of Hollywood." Using the relationship between notorious "auteur" director, Alfred Hitchcock, and notorious creative producer, David O. Selznick, producer-writer-director Michael Epstein explores the changing of the guard that took place when the studios fell from power: the director replaced the producer as the key artistic player in Hollywood filmmaking. With this extremely well-written and informative work, Epstein, whose "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" premiered at Sundance in 1996 shortly before it was nominated for an Academy Award, again raises the level of artistry in public television documentaries. Executive produced by Susan Lacy's acclaimed American Masters series, it will air nationally on PBS in the fall of 1999.
Special Jury Prize winner, "On the Ropes," is a provocative, well-crafted illustration of the injustices, insecurities, and powerful relationships in the lives of three amateur boxers and their coach. Filmmakers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen found a wealth of character and struggle in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Boxing Center and Burstein and Morgen artfully edit their footage into a rhythmic, rousing meditation on dreams. Hopefully, enough people will get beyond the film's similarity to "Hoop Dreams" ("the Hoop Dreams of boxing" was the oft-repeated critical one-liner) in order to appreciate its inherent worth and humanity. Other award winners include "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," Stanley Nelson's in depth study of the cultural and historical significance of black-owned newspapers in America, which garnered the Freedom of Expression Award. Director-producer-writer Jon Else took home the Filmmaker's Trophy for "Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle," a playful look at the backstage action of the San Francisco Opera production of Wagner's 17 hour long opera, Ring Cycle.
An overflow of good docs meant that a few were left out in the cold at the awards ceremony. For example, "Death: A Love Story," the remarkably strong film debut of Michelle LeBrun, is a fiercely emotional, poetic film about the untimely death of her husband. While many personal docs fall into the trap of indulgence and boring self-aggrandizement, LeBrun manages to create an inspirational tribute to her husband and his life.
Another film about death, this one the latest from formalist doc guru Errol Morris, treated Sundance audiences to a much-appreciated look at an intricate work-in-progress. "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." is another of Morris's singular, aesthetically symbolic, almost scientific examinations of human nature. More than a film about Leuchter, a subject fascinating in itself, "Mr. Death" conjures up countless questions about the possibility of humane murder, historical reconstruction, and truth.
According to Chris Smith, Sundance provided a supremely effective platform for documentaries this year. "In 1996 when we were there with American Job," he said, "we only had two screenings and no one really bothered us. This year, there was more press and publicity, more screenings, more distributors, and more momentum for the film. It was relentless." Smith said he noticed "a lot more focus on the documentaries" in 1999 than in 1996. Rory Kennedy was also impressed by the general quality and level of attention documentaries received. "Maybe," she says, "it's because documentaries still don't involve much money and have remained pure."
Despite all the success and acclaim documentaries received in Park City this year, it is difficult to end a wrap-up article about Sundance's 1999 documentary slate with the words "year of the documentary." These words call to mind 1997's Oscar catch phrase "year of the independent," a phrase which accurately described the unusual, overwhelming number of independent films nominated for major awards. Although two powerfully evocative, Sundance award-winning films were nominated by the Academy this year - Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus' "The Farm" (Grand Jury Prize, 1998) and Sonneborn's "Regret to Inform" -- based on the Academy's new 1999 policy concerning docs, this is definitely NOT the "year of the documentary." The Academy announced in January that in 1999's calendar year there will be only one documentary category which combines feature and short documentaries into one, drastically reduced category. Shorts will compete with features. This displays an overwhelming lack of understanding and respect for the documentary craft.
It is true, however, that the Academy has never been considered a valuable source of information on cutting edge, independent filmmaking. Documentaries have always been at home at festivals; much of the time the most extensive theatrical exposure documentaries get is on the festival circuit. As Rory Kennedy says, "It's usually so difficult to see documentaries - I'm always trying to figure out how to get a tape or get my hands on something - and it's great to go to a festival and get a chance to see documentaries in the theater." When the best of dramatic features are not at premiere film festivals like Sundance (and many of this year's best features were not festival films) the docs are still there, year after year, in all their Sisyphean glory.
[Amy Goodman is a New York based writer who writes often on documentary film. She is also the line producer of another kind of underdog film, the dramatic feature "Treasure Island," which won a Special Jury Prize for Distinctive Vision in Filmmaking at Sundance this year.]