Sundance prides itself on its devotion to the documentary form, and the organization likes to take credit, in some part, for the recent rise of nonfiction in the U.S. marketplace. This equal attention for true-life and fictional stories also applies to the world cinema program. Last year’s international nonfiction competition showcased some of the best documentaries of 2005, including “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire,” “Unknown White Male,” “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia,” and most notably, the world premiere of Werner Herzog’s celebrated “Grizzly Man.” While it seems there is little in the selection so far that is as memorable as Herzog’s work, there are a handful of standouts and worthy subjects raised.
Despite the glut of holocaust documentaries that already exist, Rex Bloomstein‘s powerfully restrained “KZ” makes a compelling case for not just the continued existence of the form itself, but the necessity of the concentration camp memorial experience. Using an unobtrusive, observational camera, Bloomstein meditatively watches those touring Austria’s Menthausen camp, one of the last to be liberated, as well as residents of the Austrian town and the tour guides themselves. One guide, a troubled eight-year tour veteran who’s been driven to anti-depressants and alcoholism, provides the film’s emotional core and reflects the devastating toll that the Holocaust can still have on individuals. But most shocking are the smiling new residents who hope no cruelties took place in their once SS-occupied home and a former member of the Nazi Youth who says the years of the Third Reich were a “beautiful time.”
A detached sadness also infuses “Black Gold,” a look at an Ethiopian coffee co-op struggling to make ends meet in a globalized economy. A bracing reminder of how U.S. and European wealth relies on the continued subjugation and impoverishment of Africa, “Black Gold,” unfortunately, is not the coffee expose that many Starbucks-haters would have expected. Directors Mark Francis and Nick Francis fail to dig up and adequately explain the root causes that have created the abject poverty that consumes Ethiopian’s coffee-rich communities. Disturbing footage of the famine that ravages children in Sidoma, the area that supplies Starbucks’ Ethiopian blends, puts a human face on Africa’s poor. But it’s only very late into the film that the directors convey, and only tangentially explain — how World Trade Organization treaties unfairly hurt third world countries, making them reliant on aid rather than fostering their own economies. The somber “Black Gold” could also benefit from a little Michael Moore-style muckraking.
Yonghi Yang‘s personal documentary “Dear Pyongyang” is another subtle reflection of geopolitical issues through a human mirror. Yonghi videotapes her jovial elderly parents — celebrated North Korean activists who emigrated to Japan. Expecting relations to normalize between the two countries, the parents “returned” all three of their sons to grow up away in North Korea’s “revolutionary capital.” But politics continues to put a wall between family and nations to this day. Using a voice-over narration, Yonghi creates a video-diary-like glimpse into the contradictions of her parents’ situation: While they celebrate the benevolence and generosity of “our great leader Kim Il-sung,” they pack up boxes of supplies to send to their gaunt family and friends back in the “fatherland.” While the film exposes revealing images of North Korea’s impoverished Socialist-style housing projects, it takes at least 90 minutes before Yonghi finally confronts her father with questions of regret and a challenge to his ideological beliefs.
Three documentaries take on the challenge of tackling subjects who are no longer alive. With little or no interview footage, these posthumous docs must come up with creative ways to examine the mysterious lives and deaths of their central characters.
Australian director Gillian Armstrong, best known for her features “The Last Days of Chez Nous” and “My Brilliant Career,” churns out the enjoyable and expressive “Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst.” Armstrong, who has been making documentaries since the 1970s, brings an exuberant and colorful approach to an equally colorful character: Florence Broadhurst was born a poor Australian girl, but grew up in her later years to become an internationally renowned wallpaper designer who masqueraded as a high-society Brit.
Using animated still pictures, fictionalized narration by “Broadhurst” herself, and stylish reenactments, she is shown with a shock of red hair and a bright-yellow coat walking against black-and-white city streets towards her doom, Armstrong paints an entertaining picture of Broadhurst’s rise, from 1920s comedy revues to British painter to seller of used trucks — and tragic fall. Broadhurst’s brutal 1977 murder remains unsolved. Though the famed design diva still remains somewhat of a mystery by the film’s end, Armstrong seems to recognize that this elusiveness is part of Broadhurst’s very allure.
Heidi Specogna‘s German-Swiss production “The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez” employs a fascinating rhetorical device to tell the story of the first U.S. soldier to die in the Iraq war. Beginning in Gutierrez’s birthplace of Guatemala, the film traces this “green-card soldier’s” hardscrabble life as a street kid and as an illegal immigrant by focusing on other children living in similar circumstances and other Latinos who have crossed the border. In so doing, Gutierrez’s story becomes many people’s stories. And when we hear of his futile demise at the hands of friendly fire, his tragedy resonates beyond the death of one single man.
Luc Schaedler‘s misleadingly titled “Angry Monk” is the least successful of the three. Better described by its subtitle: “Reflections on Tibet,” this PBS-style travelogue-portrait follows the footsteps of Gendun Choepel, an early 20th century Tibetan monk who embraced modernity, translated the Kama Sutra, and “drank, smoke and fucked women,” according to one of his contemporaries. But he wasn’t angry, he doesn’t emerge as much of a character, and filmmaker Schaedler does too little, too late in tying Choepel to anti-Chinese revolutionary movements that have sprung up among Tibetan monks over recent years against their occupiers.
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