The Sundance Film Festival has grown into one of the finest showcases of non-fiction filmmaking in the world, and this year’s program, which featured an array of films from high profile filmmakers at the top of their game, might have been the best the festival has ever had. It was a staggeringly good program; I walked out of almost every movie I saw feeling as though it was in contention as one of my personal favorites of the festival. Then, as the festival went on, I realized how unnecessary my own desire for a hierarchy actually was. Each of the films I saw had something to say; every one of them felt an important contribution to the conversation. What’s more impressive is that they felt stylistically unique, each bearing the distinguishing mark of its maker(s).
And yet, a few days removed from the madness of Park City, the movie I can’t quite get out of my head wasn’t even at the festival. Up the hill on Main St., in a small ballroom in the Treasure Mountain Inn, I caught Slamdance’s premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s deeply moving elegy for the late actor/monologist Spalding Gray, And Everything Is Going Fine. Soderbergh has made something both lovely and remarkable; using footage of Gray talking about himself (a simple choice really; Gray was always the subject of his own work) and placing his story in chronological order, Soderbergh allows Gray to narrate his own life story across time and space, from his early years in Rhode Island to the days before his untimely death. The effect is haunting; listening to a sex-and-death obsessed Gray discuss his mother’s suicide, watching his physical deterioration after a tragic car accident in Ireland, seeing his artistry in the prime of his creative career, you get a true sense of the man and therefore a true sense of loss at his death. It is Gray’s final act that hovers like a specter over the film, illuminating each and every moment with a horrifying sense of premonition, but Soderbergh makes the wise choice to end the film without directly referencing Gray’s death, instead allowing its absence to resonate and rhyme with the film’s final cut to black; in that brief and terrible moment, the film knocked the wind out of me.
Back down the hill and inside the Holiday Village Theaters, Sundance held sway. Again, what comes directly to mind? Has to be Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 12th And Delaware, a horrifying exposé of the tactics and deceptions that take place between two competitive organizations—a women’s reproductive health care clinic that provides abortion services and, directly across the street, a Catholic counseling service that seeks to get pregnant women thinking about seeing their pregnancy through by any means necessary. While I won’t take the counselors to task for their beliefs (they’re entitled to them), their tactics are pretty despicable and range from making false promises of money and support for poor families who believe they can’t afford another child through offering sonograms to pregnant women and then falsifying the length of the pregnancy, allowing women to believe they are not as far along as they really are in the hopes that they will take time to think about their choice (and miss their eligibility for abortion in the first trimester).
The film takes place in Florida, which has been ground zero in the abortion debate in recent years; from the murder of abortion providers to the constant picketing of reproductive care clinics, the history of the abortion battle in Florida weighs heavily on the film’s story, and the potential for violence hovers over the proceedings like a storm cloud. Ewing and Grady do an excellent job of refusing to pass judgment, allowing for an honest presentation of the tensions and dynamics between a fully resourced Catholic opposition and an abortion clinic essentially under siege. No matter where you fall on the spectrum on the issue of a woman’s right to choose, 12th And Delaware provides a deep, provocative insight into the terms of the battle as it exists today.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Catfish took a truly engaging turn from hilarious expose of internet identity to the pain and anguish of real life. I don’t want to say too much about the movie (whoever ruins the surprises within the film is a true jerk), but the greatest compliment I can pay the film is the humanism on display among the film’s protagonists; faced with a tough choice between maintaining the light, funny tone and acknowledging the sadness at the core of the joke, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and Yaniv Schulman make very good decisions, allowing the real story (and real life) to emerge from the ashes of their expectations.
In terms of real life, the experience does not get more compelling than the way it is presented in Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, a brilliant portrait of a Chinese family enduring a trip from their jobs in the city to their home town in the countryside. Of course, they decide to head back during Chinese New Year, the one time each year when they and 135 million of their fellow citizens make the trip home; as public transportation is stretched to its utter limits (the film’s staggering opening tracking shot shows tens of thousands of people pressing to get onto a train platform), so too is the family; each struggles to maintain their connection to the other, to tradition and to their roles in the familial hierarchy. To say that things don’t go well is an understatement; we see the family fracture before our eyes, the modernity of the present day Chinese experience deeply at odds with the social and cultural expectations that have served the society for generations. Fan, who shot Yung Chang’s amazing Up The Yangtze, uses his eye for emotional detail to not only juxtapose the scale of human feeling against the massive crush of humanity, but also succeeds in creating empathy in the most heart-wrenching of moments.
Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home
As a study of cultural change, Secrets Of The Tribe stands alone; the story of depravity, egotism and nefarious behavior among the academic elites who dominate the field of Cultural Anthropology, the film is a brilliant tonic to the unbearable cult of the expert. Three scholars, two American and one French, compete to define the meaning and lessons of the Ya̧nomamö people of Venezuela and Brazil. An indigenous people who encountered little contact with the outside world until the 20th century, the Ya̧nomamö were seen as an example of a pristine indigenous culture that could be studied as some sort of baseline for the development of modern societies. As the anthropologists flooded in, they began to compromise the Ya̧nomamö society in uniquely cruel ways, including introducing sexual abuse of children, infectious disease and personal sexual desire between subject and scientist. Secrets Of The Tribe effectively dismantles the credibility of the entire field of Anthropology, exposing the self-interest and devastation wrought by the vainglorious attempts to ascribe meaning to the lives of others. As the film ended, I was reminded of why I so often loathe and distrust the academy; my own belief in the power of art and artists depends upon the acknowledgment of a deep subjectivity. If only the sciences and the faithful could follow suit.
Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story was another revelation. I had followed the manufacturing of a jingoistic triumphalism of Pat Tillman’s move from the NFL into active military service, and I had always honestly assumed that Tillman’s choice was another example of the parallels drawn so often between the worlds of sport and the military. Look at any modern football game for trite comparisons between the game and the language of combat; the games always feature salutes to the men and women in the armed services, flyovers from stealth bombers, etc. I have always sat back and taken it all in, wondering when the NFL will honor our those who sacrifice everyday in America’s classrooms, or the brave men and women who work in the civil service. The Tillman Story stood my preconceptions on their head, showing Tillman and, most impressively, his family as thoughtful and real, existing well outside of the stereotype I brought into the theater with me. That the government lied to the Tillmans after using Pat’s death to create a heroic narrative is not surprising, but what was surprising is the determination of the Tillman family to just be themselves, to search for the truth and to abide no bullshit from anyone. While I wish Lev’s film had taken the NFL to task for its participation in the grand charade of glorifying Tillman’s choice and loss (especially for exploiting his reasoning for military service, reasoning he wanted kept a secret, by placing them on the Jumbotron at an Arizona Cardinals home football game), the film inspired a new-found and deep respect for the man himself, for his family, for his decision to serve and a palpable sense of outrage for his loss.
Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story