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Preview: Seven Documentary Tropes at Sundance 2014

Preview: Seven Documentary Tropes at Sundance 2014

The docs have landed for Sundance 2014. In a world where
newspapers are vanishing by the day, the subjects that documentarians take on bear watching. They’re the new journalists of our day. 

Many of this year’s subjects cover similar ground as last year’s crop of Sundance docs – war, corruption, gender
battles, injustice, science, technology, and music. And there are quite a few returning
filmmakers such as Andrew Rossi and Nadine Schirman. One doc we’ve never seen before: a sports jock-umentary about Dock Ellis, who pitched
a no-hitter on LSD in the 1970’s.  

I’ve seen two of the films in the doc competition (“Return to Homs” and “My
Prairie Home in the World”
); see trailers below. Here’s a preview of the TK doc tropes on view in Park City this year:

1. The prisoner sentenced to life who may or may not be innocent doc. 

Many will view “CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart” by Jeremiah Zagar
(HBO) through the filter of Gus van Sant’s Nicole
Kidman vehicle “To Die For,” about the New Hampshire schoolteacher with everything in
place, including her smile, who was sentenced to life in prison for arranging
for a teenage boyfriend of 15 and his friends to kill her husband.

The documentary about a prisoner who was wrongfully charged and convicted is not new to Sundance. But is that what the Smart case is? Despite what the prosecutors claim, the film shows, and the jury finds, the carefully-groomed and intelligent now 40ish Pamela Smart – appropriately named for a woman who achieved high marks in degrees she earned in prison – insists that she did not arrange her husband’s death. She was filmed saying just that on “Oprah,” the closest thing in America to Lourdes or Jerusalem for a self-professed victim of injustice. Had she taken a plea, she might not be serving life without parole – in New York, because New Hampshire did not have a woman’s prison severe enough to punish her for such a crime. Bedford Hills, the maximum security prison for women in New York State, is hard time. I visited that prison at indoor temperatures near 100 degrees last summer, for a theater performance in which Pamela Smart was a participant.

Did she do it?  The best criminals can convince you of anything, and the very best are not in jail. Yet Pamela Smart hasn’t changed her story for more than 20 years. You’ll have to rely on the film’s account of her life. Pamela won’t be there for a question and answer session.

2. The medical mystery doc. 

In the U.S. Doc competition, Michael Rossato-Bennett’s “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” looks at the way that music can connect people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease with their past, as memory dissolves with other brain functions.

Filmmakers have looked at this subject before. Alan Berliner (a Sundance alum for decades) won the feature doc prize at last year’s IDFA with “First Cousin, Once Removed” (now on the doc Oscar short list), a distillation of visits with a relative, Edwin Honig, who had been a professor of literature at Brown University and a translator of classics from Spanish and Portuguese. In Berliner’s observation of Honig, which tracks the deterioration of his cousin’s mind – as any film about dementia will have to do – poetry does not activate memory.  That discouraging fact does not keep the aging man from making Delphic pronouncements.  

For years, doctors treating Alzheimer’s patients have tried giving them toys and puzzles to activate or preserve mental capacity. Sometimes that activity seems to slow the process of cognitive loss. Does music? Is this Nero’s violin in the face of a demographic tsunami?

3. The hot-topic political debate doc. 

“The Case Against 8” by Ben Cotner and
Ryan White scrutinizes the campaign to overturn
California’s ban on same-sex marriages, focusing on the strange bedfellows that
formed an odd alliance. There will be cause for celebration, as there was with “How to Survive a Plague” (2012), by David France, a precursor in the Sundance
procession of AIDS docs which tracked the evolution of some AIDS protesters from
demonstrators into experts on the disease.

In Utah, the focus is likely to turn away from the legal
team that helped make gay marriage a possibility again in California, and
toward the opponents of same-sex marriage. What better place than the Mormon
stronghold to look at the role that the Mormon Church played in financing the
referendum that brought Prop 8 to voters in 2008, pouring money into the state?

And what better time than the present, when the Catholic Church,
the other mainstay of Prop 8, is now led by a new Pope, Francis, who denounces Capitalism and says that the Church should move away from
condemning homosexuality (echoing the Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, subject
of another recent film at Sundance)?  Who
would have thought that a Pope would sound more reasonable than the U.S. House of

From the other side of the religious political spectrum
comes “Cesar’s Last Fast,” by Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee, a tribute to
Cesar Chavez, the farm workers’ leader and ardent Catholic who demonstrated and
fasted on behalf of low-paid workers for whom a union was thought unimaginable.
Think of fast food workers striking today. Back in those days, priests and
bishops (even the now–discredited Cardinal Roger Mahony) marched with
Chavez.  As with “The Case Against 8,” “Cesar’s Last Fast” will take its message (or homage) to a state where the
politics couldn’t be less welcoming. Bear in mind that for most Utahans, the
National Rifle Association is what comes closest to a union.        

But one of the most controversial films at Sundance looks at the price of education, a benefit that has been beyond debate. Is college worth it, given the price, is the question raised in “Ivory Tower” by Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times,” 2011). Forget about Harvard, which seems to have retained its value. One of the obvious examples of education inflation is film school, ballooning in enrollment in the US and elsewhere. A year at NYU cost $55,000 the last time I checked, with what prospects afterward, and what do students learn? There’s another problem with film schools. The Sundance effect was a crucial factor in their expansion. If there’s a crisis, who’s to blame? Sounds like a panel. 

4. The tech-umentary doc. 

This year
that film is “The Internet’s Own Boy: The
Story of Aaron Swartz”
by Brian Knappenberger (“We Are Legion: The Story of the
Hacktivists”). At Sundance 2013, “We Steal Secrets” by Alex Gibney revealed some
of the internal complications of Julian Assange as it exposed spying by nations
that now condemn the Wikileaks founder. (And that was before Edward Snowden,
now another US target, started his downloading campaign.) Swartz, a brilliant
prodigy whose life seemed to be on a parallel mission, wasn’t so lucky – a
suicide at 26.  The probing of the
relationship between technology and ethics, between information and power,
could not be more timely. Nor could the question of whether this director is
making his film available for free on the internet.

That tech domain goes off in an infinite number of
vectors. Sundance brings us a taste of
the dystopian “Brave New World” strain. “Love Child,” by Valeries Veatch (South
Korea/USA), follows the trial of a Korean couple whose obsession with a virtual
world led to the death of their daughter. 
Web Junkie, by the Israelis Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, visits a
treatment center in Beijing for teenagers who are diagnosed with internet

5. The Middle East doc.

Be prepared for World Docs at SD 2014 to examine subjects
that have already been made into features. Palestine Oscar entry “Omar,” which premiered at Venice this
year, follows an Arab youth who worked for the Israelis on the West Bank, in
an adventure story that didn’t lack for realism or despair.

Measuring how the truth measure up against the dramatic truth, “The Green Prince” by Nadav
Schirman adapts “Son of Hamas,” the autobiography of Mosan Hasan Yousef, the son
of a Hamas leader and a convert to Christianity who worked for Israeli
intelligence and now lives in Los Angeles. Yes, everyone does end up there. Incendiary? It’s a delicate subject. There should be a prize
for anyone who tries to attend the premiere as “talent,” and a special prize
for anyone in the film who gets through the metal detector. I’m assuming that there will be high

Schirman, an Israeli, made “The Champagne Spy” (2008) about Wolfgang Lotz, an Israeli
spy posing as a German equestrian who worked in Egypt for years, and was arrested,
tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Lotz was freed in a prisoner exchange
after the Six Day War of 1967, and eventually worked in the sports department
of the German department store Kaufhof.

Schirman’s next film was “In a Dark Room” (2012),
recollections of the Magdalena Kopp, the unfortunate East German terrorist who
married the notorious Venezuelan assassin, Carlos “The Jackal” Ramirez. If
there were ever any truth to the expression, “marriage made in hell,” it’s
here. Based on those two films, I have high expectations for Schirman’s “The Green Prince,” a German co-production involving the veteran Karl “Baumi” Baumgartner. The doc
should also be a sought-after acquisition. Other producers are John Batsek (“Project
Nim,” “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Pat Tillman Story”) and Simon Chinn (“Man on
Wire”).  Sequel jokes?

Not all the docs in the World Competition are world
premieres. “Return to Homs” by Talal Derki was the opening night film at IDFA in
Amsterdam, which showed a range of docs from the Middle East. As the hot spot of the moment, it seems right for
Sundance to show a film about a civil war that shows no sign of abating.  

Cameras follow rebels in the city of fighting that
erodes into rubble as we watch. Insurgents race through holes in building walls
that enable them to cover distance inside without being visible to snipers, who
seem to have the area covered from above.

The leitmotifs here are those holes, which can resemble
endless caves (Ali Baba?) or an eternally reflecting mirror, with the frames
shrinking as they head toward infinity.

As expected, the logistics of filming rebels in a Syrian
city are near-impossible, yet the
technical risks seem to be taken for granted by fighters filmed by their
friends for whom the far greater logistical challenge is staying alive. One
does that by staying out of the crosshairs of Syrian troops whose job is to
shoot and kill them. 

Another leitmotif of the Syrian civil war is the rubble of
urban warfare. We saw that in the former Yugoslavia, especially in cities like
Vukovar, and in Grozny in Chechnya. (Films at Sundance that looked at Chechnya
gave us those images.) Now we see the Syrian version of an urban destruction
machine that spares nothing in its way –state-sponsored, since the rebels don’t
have planes or artillery. Think of a government that shells and bombs its own
citizens.  Is the Assad regime seeking to
make Homs a place that isn’t worth fighting for? If that’s the strategy, it
isn’t working.   

No doubt the situation in Homs could change by late January,
most likely in the body count, but Return to Homs approaches the standoff there
as constant fighting, for which there is no beginning and no end.

6. The music doc.

Another film that has been out (that term seems right) for a while – in release in Canada –is “My Prairie Home,” Chelsea MacMullan’s portrait of the transgender singer Rae Spoon. Sundance almost always has a musical bio-doc, and this year’s has a whimsical imagination to it. Maybe there’s something in the water or the alfalfa north of the border with Minnesota, the origin point of the well-meaning but dull “A Prairie Home Companion.” Spoon has a wit that fits with quirky surroundings that borrow a thing or two from Peewee Herman, between shots of the long highways that cross Canada.

Don’t be surprised if Spoon and those empry highways remind you of Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry” (Sundance 1999), nothing if not another prairie phenomenon. Despite what we hear about the evangelical household and provincial town that Spoon fled in Canada, things looks worse in the uncivilized territory south of the border, i.e., in the US. Get ready for another snub at Utah culture.Nick Cave gets his own profile in “20,000 Days on Earth,” by
Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard – note the ampersand. The film is described as
a combination of drama and reality. You could say the same about “My Prairie

7. The environment doc. 

In a festival where a cause rarely goes un-filmed for long,
the environment gets its due in “Marmato,” by Mark Grieco.  The curse of the town of Marmato in Colombia
is the gold that lies underneath it. A Canadian mining firm wants it, citing a
value of $20 billion. A gold rush tends to have a gravitational pull that can’t
be resisted, and the innocents tend to lose. Resource rape is a horror in the
developing world. The war over Marmato has lasted for 6 years.

Another side to the Gold Rush is the collateral damage, akin
to what happens to people who have the misfortune of living near a gambling
casino. “The Overnighters” by Jesse Moss looks at men working in the oil fields
of North Dakota – the economic success story of the American prairie.

Success in the heartland comes with a price – no surprise to
anyone who has spent time in the boom and bust West. 

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