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Sudden Impact: How Sundance Documentaries Have Gained (or Lost) Relevance in the Trump Age

The non-fiction films at this year's festival were developed before the Trump administration took power, but now they can't help but reflect its impact.

sundance documentaries 2017

“An Inconvenient Sequel,” “Trophy,” ‘Whose Streets?”

Conceived and created before the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, Sundance’s documentaries straddle one of the most profound cultural and political shifts in the United States’ recent history.

As the country is forced to grapple with a new range of issues in the post-Obama age, documentarians are also now straining to catch up. You could see it on the screen at Sundance, where last-act codas and recent news snippets suggested how the triumph of Trump had impacted, and in some cases, undermined the stories being told. The story of the election is explicitly told in “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time,” but even when Trump wasn’t presented, the country’s conservative turn—and the pain and fractures it has caused among many of its citizens—may influence the way these films are received and understood.

A People Divided

How are this year’s nonfiction stories, then, staying relevant in the new America? Sometimes, coincidence and circumstance has lead to surprisingly pertinent resonances. Take Tonislav Hristov’s sly Bulgarian doc “The Good Postman,” which follows a mayoral election in a sleepy border town with direct echoes of the U.S.’s own recent divisive election, pitting an old pro-immigrant mail-carrier against a Communist xenophobe and a do-nothing bureaucrat. Perhaps not surprisingly, good intentions and the moral high ground only go so far these days—even in remote Bulgaria.

Likewise, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” takes on new dimensions when screened in light of a Trump presidency bent on eliminating the E.P.A. and embracing the fossil fuel industry. In this post-fact, anti-science America, Gore’s inspiring call to action in the wake of increasingly dangerous incidences of climate change over the last decade loses much of its hopeful tenor—and its narrative purpose. For 90 minutes, we’re watching Gore fight a battle that we know he will ultimately lose. If Trump’s presidency may fire up Gore’s base to seek out and champion “Truth to Power,” it still rains on the movie’s parade.

A couple poses with a fresh kill in “Trophy”

Courtesy of Christina Clusiau / Reel Peak Films

Though less overtly connected to the current political scene, “Trophy,” Shaul Schwarz’s thorny look at issues around big-game hunting and wildlife conservation, provides a remarkably apt metaphor for our discordant times. Schwarz lines up an array of competing stakeholders with different perspectives on endangered species: a god-fearing Texas hunter on a killing mission; a sympathetic South African rhino breeder; local African villagers; animal rights activists; conservation experts; anti-poaching enforcers—all of whom make their own persuasive case.

What makes “Trophy” unique is that it forces viewers to take on unexpected sides. For instance, a beer-drinking ugly American (who shoots a crocodile in the head, and yells, “Oh, yeah, motherfucker, it’s party time”) may be our best strategy to grow wildlife populations, along with big-game farmers who shed a tear at the thought of killing one of their stock. Are we to sympathize or detest these guys? It’s hard to tell. Unlike any other Sundance documentary I’ve seen, in fact, “Trophy” may be the best representation of our unpredictably aligned political arena, where paradox has supplanted straightforward policy-making. As one anti-poaching officer explains, “We’re fighting to save something so we can kill it.”

Peter Nicks’s outstanding direct-cinema portrait of the troubled Oakland Police “The Force” is another urgent chronicle that captures the deep ruptures in our communities: On one side, the much-maligned police of the California city; on the other, the community who feels trampled over by the authorities. That “The Force” suggests—at first, at least—that we should sympathize with the police during Trumpian times may be a tough pill for some viewers to swallow, but what makes the movie such a riveting and resonant story is the unexpected places it goes. Despite how it first seems, “The Force” paints a far more complicated and troubled picture of enforcement and accountability, which is sure to only become more distressing in the years to come.


“Whose Streets?”

There were lots of true stories of resistance in Park City this year, ranging from portraits of Latina civil rights activist Dolores Huerta (“Dolores”) to Hong Kong teenager Joshua Wong (“Joshua: Teenager Vs Superpower”) to the Women’s March on Main St. Perhaps there isn’t a more apropos time for all of these tales of struggle and defeat, of lurching toward liberation and fighting against the powers that be.

Take Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ “Whose Streets?”, an urgent and captivating people’s eye-view of Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr., which looks a lot more dire under a Trump regime. While the film points a finger at President Obama’s lack of intervention while heavily armed police were tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at unarmed African American citizens, it’s impossible not to consider how much worse it would be for Ferguson’s residents if unrest broke out in the coming years. At least U.S. District Attorney Eric Holder eventually investigated and took the Ferguson PD to task for patterns of unethical behavior, as the film reveals. (Imagine Jeff Sessions doing the same. Or don’t.)

There’s also a palpable and painful sense of tragedy, suffering and injustice that runs through “Whose Streets?” like a live-wire, which feels even more urgent amid the spirit of protest that Trump’s presidency has unleashed. “Whose Streets?” is a stirring anthem for black power and self-determination, but in the current environment, the film can also be viewed as a rallying cry against authoritarianism and the new “law and order” President. As the film’s demonstrators intone, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom; it is our duty to win.”

“City of Ghosts”

From Ferguson to Syria, the citizen journalists profiled in “Cartel Land” director Matthew Heineman’s latest engrossing high-stakes doc-thriller “City of Ghosts” also present a stirring and disturbing vision of protest against all odds. The group, calling themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), are composed of a ragtag group of activists, some based in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, while its leaders organize media campaigns from nearby Turkey or Germany. In constant fear of being killed or seeing their family members killed, the RBSS guys are a shell-shocked and determined group of sympathetic Muslims. When they encounter anti-immigrant hate groups at a nationalist rally in Germany, it’s impossible not to think of the Trump-lead backlash against Muslims and immigrants, making RBSS’s fight seem all the more difficult—and necessary—in these times.

A less sympathetic picture of resistors comes in “Bomb the System” director Adam Bhala Lough’s “The New Radical,” a messy look at cyber-dissidents Cody Wilson, the man who invented the 3-D printable gun, and Amir Taaki, the Bitcoin “dark market” advocate. These guys’ arrogant crypto-anarchic impulses and muddled ideologies are already hard to digest, but seen under a Trump world, they become even less palatable. While they bring important and complex issues to the fore—such as individual liberty and freedom of information vs. government and corporate control—the Trump cabinet’s pro-gun libertarian agenda make these guys look less like resistors and more like part of the new establishment. It’s an interesting switch, which Bhala Lough acknowledges, but it also makes them even less appealing.

Within “The New Radical,” there’s also a startling lesson about shifting signifiers: A few years ago at Sundance, Alex Gibney could premiere a movie about the multi-faceted case of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but when Assange appears an an expert talking head in “The New Radical,” a few months after the 2016 election, hacker culture and its gurus don’t appear complex so much as dubious.


Then there’s Grigory Rodchenkov, the unlikely activist and whistleblower at the center of Bryan Fogel’s “ICARUS,” a gripping real-life political thriller, whose nemesis is none other than Trump pal Vladimir Putin.

Like “CitizenFour,” the film chronicles Rodchenkov in real-time as he goes public with information about Russia’s state-sponsored doping plan, in which Russian athletes were given performance-enhancing drugs on a massive scale. But the film gains a whole new level of currency in the wake of the 2016 election and the rise of Trump — not just in its portrait of Putin as a Machiavellian puppet-master and “high-level cheater,” as Rodchenkov proudly calls his countrymen, but in its reoccurring use of Rodchenkov’s favorite book, George Orwell’s “1984” and the “doublethink” at its core, where “lies became truth.”

I don’t believe Trump is ever mentioned in “ICARUS,” but as a wide-reaching exploration of conspiracy, falsehoods and manipulation in the highest corridors of power, Fogel’s documentary couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

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