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Inside the (Sundance) Jury Room with Joe Berlinger: Part Two

Inside the (Sundance) Jury Room with Joe Berlinger: Part Two

Inside the (Sundance) Jury Room with Joe Berlinger: Part Two

by Eugene Hernandez

During our discussion, Sundance documentary juror Joe Berlinger is
anxious to insure that this illumination of the process does not
denigrate the work of any of the competition filmmakers. While he was
admittedly adamant that Kirby Dick’s “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flannagan,
” be named the jury’s Grand Prize winner, he adds, “In fairness to
my fellow jurors, we all had films that were important to us.” The jurors’ personal
connection to films resulted in a process of negotiation to
determine a lineup of winners that each could feel comfortable with.
Personally, Berlinger sought to recognize two films, “Sick” and Mark
Jonathan Harris’ “The Long Way Home“, a Holocaust documentary that, in his
catalog description, Sundance Institute Programming Director Geoffrey
Gilmore says is, “clearly produced from specific point of view.”

On the plane trip his home in New York City to the festival in
Utah, Berlinger considered the process he was about to experience.
Sharing those thoughts with indieWIRE after the fact, he explains his goal was
to avoid the “jury phenomena” he calls, “Aesthetic Fascism,” or the
“arrogant belief that there is only one way to make a documentary” — one concept
that he believes has negatively influenced opinions of his and Bruce
Sinofsky’s films’ because of what he calls the “rigidity about what
constitutes a documentary among some jury members.” The second jury
dynamic Berlinger characterizes is, “the Seduction of Subject Matter,”
or the inclination to let “sexual (and/or) social politics outweigh
(the) quality of filmmaking.” Berlinger explains that this concept has
also worked against his and Sinofsky’s films, specifically “Paradise Lost“,
whose subject matter repelled many juries — individuals that he
believes are often interested in “more politically correct films.”

Berlinger saw both dynamics at work as he touted the qualities of “Sick”
and “The Long Way Home” in the jury room. Berlinger’s self-described
“tooth and nail” fight for “Sick” showed the other jurors “that I was not
going to be satisfied without “Sick” being recognized in one way or another”; the
group ultimately awarded a Special Jury Prize to Kirby Dick’s “Sick”.
While Berlinger reveals that the jury did not have a foreperson, or
leader, he notes that in the case of “Sick”, “the special jury prize was
everybody accommodating me.” Yet, his battle for “The Long Way Home” was
less successful. He explains that “all (of the jurors) agreed that the
filmmaking was impressive, “but in the end the film went un-acknowledged because
for some in the group “the film was too Zionist and anti-Arab,” a view he
says did not share. Berlinger calls the jury’s failure to honor Jonathan
Harris’ film, “a major disappointment,” explaining, “What frustrated me
was the inconsistencies of pushing the political button. When it came
to issues that a juror agreed with, it was okay to say the issue is more
important that the filmmaking.” However, he adds, that “when the issue
wasn’t beloved,” the jurors rejected the film “for its inferior craft.”

In the end, Berlinger confirms that participating in the jury process
was a valuable experience because while it confirmed some of his fears
that “social change and the message is more important than the
filmmaking,” it did refute what he calls his “immature belief” that
juries who have failed to recognize his and Bruce Sinofsky’s films,
simply don’t like the filmmakers’ personally. He reveals that he now
sees how “controversial and/or innovative films can get overlooked by juries,”
explaining that, “if you have as diverse a jury as we had, then you
settle on films that you can live with in some categories, instead of
(reaching) a true consensus.” Berlinger makes the point again that he
does not want to “take away from any of the prize winners,” adding, “all
of the films that won prizes were worthy films.” He explains, “I am
commenting on the dynamic that occurs when people with different
backgrounds and aesthetics come together and are asked to select ‘the
best.'” As for whether the experience is one he would undergo again, he
states, “I am very proud of what I did, I fought for two films I
believed in. It was frustrating at times, but enjoyable. I would
certainly do it again.”

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