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Sundance 2020: Some of Its Best Documentaries Will Change the Way Stories Are Told

Understanding how we got to this point requires a look back on recent Sundance history.

Michael Martin in "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets"

Michael Martin in “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”

Sundance is a microcosm of change across the film industry; it’s also a barometer for broader concerns. The stories told across Park City at the start of each year may not have been programmed with trends in mind, but they often signal the acceleration of aesthetic or cultural developments. This year’s festival has brought much interest in the market for documentary storytelling, as questions about the barriers between reality and fiction have never felt so charged.

Some of the more timely documentaries at the festival delve into dueling media narratives and ease with which powerful institutions can bury the truth. “The Dissident” explores the role of social media in Saudi Arabia’s propaganda war that culminated with Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination, while “On the Record” explores the turmoil faced by Russell Simmons’ sexual assault victims when they decided to speak out.

Both movies use conventional filmmaking to provoke important questions about navigating censorship and confront some of the most pressing moral imperatives of the moment. However, they’re less instructive when it comes to assessing the artistry of the documentary form, and how much it has grown during a period of dramatic new interest in its marketability. Some of the best movies at Sundance are looking to change the way stories are told.

The 2020 lineup includes several standouts that bend the rules of non-fiction storytelling while asking major questions about these fractured times. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” Bill and Turner Ross’ anarchic look at the last night of a rambunctious Vegas bar, was actually shot in New Orleans with a mixture of locals and professional actors.

While it doesn’t have the gravitas of a more conventional activist documentary, “Bloody Nose” does carry a profound sense of purpose, as its various barflies roam through a grungy interior on the verge of the 2016 presidential election, as television reports become the Greek chorus for an absorbing depiction of the country’s underlying sense of abandonment. The ethos is at once celebratory and tragic: The outside world sucks; may as well order another drink.

“Bloody Nose” is one of many Sundance movies this year using unconventional tactics to confronting profound themes. Kristen Johnson’s poignant “The Death of Dick Johnson” approaches society’s queasiness around death through her own fears of losing her father, and builds that anxiety into its formalism by repeatedly depicting gruesome ways in which he could die any second. (Released by Netflix, it’s going to prompt a lot of family therapy discussions when it hits the platform worldwide.) Despite its morbid connotations, “Dick Johnson” also offers some measure of hope for desperate times — it’s a lively rumination on the notion that everyone’s doomed, so living in the moment is the best way to go.

Dick Johnson appears in Dick Johnson is Dead by Kirsten Johnson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by John Wakayama Carey.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Dick Johnson Is Dead”


Documentary innovation also crops up in NEXT entry “I Carry You With Me,” documentary veteran Heidi Ewing’s original foray into narrative filmmaking, which focuses on the sprawling 20-year plight of Iván, a closeted gay Mexican who escapes across the border and forges a successful career in New York. Ewing’s affecting, understated drama begins as a traditional work of fiction before arriving in the present day, weaving in footage of the real Iván to inject the nature of his struggle with authentic foundation.

Iván’s story derives much of its emotional center around Iván’s romance with Gerardo, the partner he initially leaves behind during his harrowing attempt to make it into the United States. “I Carry You With Me” is a movie composed of small gestures, but its hybrid nature exploits the pliability of the medium with purpose: A traditional documentary about Iván wouldn’t capture the scope of his experiences — and might even put him at risk of deportation. It’s a riveting example of how the creative process can suit a wider agenda, and a reminder the truth/fiction dichotomy doesn’t have to be clear cut.

To understand the prominence of documentary innovation in this year’s lineup requires a Sundance history lesson. Ten years ago, the festival played host to two major premieres that toyed with their audiences. “Catfish” portrayed photographer Nev Shulman’s online relationship with a woman who turns out to be very different from the way she describes herself, and the movie generated immediate questions surrounding its authenticity. (DIY consultant Peter Broderick famously confronted the filmmakers during the Q&A.) However,  the 2010 movie was groundbreaking in its ability to embody the slippery nature of social media in its very storytelling. All across Sundance, audiences debated whether Shulman was actually tricked by a middle-aged rural woman who pretended to be a nubile teen on Facebook, or if the filmmakers were tricking her all along. “Catfish” existed within the confines of an ambiguous new information age.

And then there was “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a future Oscar nominee directed by an invisible filmmaker. Banksy’s directorial debut about eccentric street artist Thierry “Mister Brainwash” Guetta surfaced as a surprise Sundance screening riddled with uncertainties. In the movie, Guetta’s laughable artistry rips off virtually every modernist tradition, and tries to make a terrible documentary about street featuring Banksy himself. But the mysterious British vandal takes control of the project when he’s mortified by the results, and ends up crafting a portrait of Guetta’s ironic ability to sell his knock-off artistry to top bidders.

Nothing in “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is entirely credible, starting with Banksy, who appears bathed in shadows throughout the saga as Guetta seems to embrace the performance art undercurrents of the project. In reality, Guetta and Banksy appeared to have orchestrated a bold prank to illustrate the commodification of street art. As with “Catfish,” the specific nature of the production only added to its ability to provoke meaningful debate about the porous nature of authenticity in the modern age.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop”

Sundance programmers embraced these questions while washing their hands of responsibility: Both “Catfish” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” screened out of any official documentary sections, leaving the specifics of their production up to pervade conversations around the festival. A decade later, they remain intriguing provocations, but conversations surrounding documentary form have caught up: “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is screening in U.S. Documentary Competition, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. The medium mandates an expansive mindset.

It may not always look that way, but these edgier approaches speak to the most pressing issues of our times, as the more traditional documentary entries prove. Among these, “Boys State” confronts the ongoing battle between honesty and obfuscation in the political process, using a weeklong retreat for teenagers to run for their own makeshift government. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain don’t take any wild filmmaking swings as they follow a handful of characters battling it out for a fictional public office, but the movie oscillates between well-intentioned campaign strategizing and heartbreaking dirty tricks. Watching “Boys State,” in which social-media soundbites and misleading online campaigns end up imitating some of the more grotesque developments of 2016, it’s impossible not to consider the tenuous nature of fact and fiction in the future of democracy. It may not have the answer to these fractured times, but it sets the stage for many arguments to come, and the potential for countless storytellers looking to keep the debate alive.

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