Docs in Sight: Sundance 2014
As part of the Sundance Film Festival has grown into a ridiculous scene of celebrity watchers, Party People, and wealthy “producers”—at least during the first weekend—the non-profit Sundance Institute (which sponsors and runs the festival) still works hard to support the innovative and non-commercial in independent filmmaking. This seems most pronounced in the documentary feature categories where there is a consistent adherence to the role of documentary storytelling around social-political issues and where new works re-engage creatively with perennial themes of human rights, mediated culture, and international chaos. The Documentary Film Program of the Sundance Institute, while a separate entity from the festival, has surely influenced the pursuit of such themes by the very nature of what it chooses to fund.
Sundance is still the blue chip festival of the independent film world and a tastemaker for what will mostly likely be seen along the independent documentary circuit in the next year. Most, if not all, of the films in the U.S. Documentary category last year got some kind of distribution deal. So, here are some of the notable documentaries that I managed to see and that will likely get wide distribution in the year to come.
The Case Against 8 and To Be Takei are very different films, but seen together they succeed sublimely in revealing how the movement against gay marriage is hypocritical, absurd and intellectually infantile. This is largely achieved in two ways: plainly showing the loving relationship between characters in same sex relationships and, in The Case Against 8, letting the story of the suit against California’s Proposition 8 (a referendum that outlawed same sex marriage after it was legalized and thousands married) reveal the ridiculous foundations of the law.
To Be Takei, a portrait of the actor who played Lieutenant Sulu on Star Trek and his partner-to-husband Brad, is jovial and charming in theme due to the filmmaker’s playful attitude and Takei’s deep-voiced charisma. But what drives the film is the hilarious and tender banter the couple shares when it seems they forget they are wearing wireless microphones. Their banter will be familiar to anyone who has been in a long-term relationship that has reached a plateau of intimacy where vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies, and playful annoyance are on full view. While the film integrates themes of homophobia in Hollywood and the Takei family’s internment in American prison camps during World War Two—an experience Takei has made into a musical—the crux of the story is his decision to finally publically come out and to advocate for gay rights issues with wit and, it seems, unrivaled social media flare. As we see his increasingly public advocacy (including many appearances on the Howard Stern radio show) it seems clear that by being true to himself has made him that much more happy and increased his fan base as well.
The Case Against 8, which was filmed over five years and centers around the case built by a legal team to sue the government of California, doesn’t need any bells and whistles. The story unfolds in the best sense of a traditional vérité documentary, minimizing talking heads and studiously following its characters. It’s largely shot in the flat and unspeakably boring offices and conference rooms of law firms but, as lawyers like David Boies and Ted Olson (who was George W. Bush’s lawyer) come on board and the same sex couples that will be the face of the suit are found, a dramatic storyline builds. We see the anticipation and increasing investment of the characters in the suit, the court decisions and a culmination that includes a personal call from President Obama. By the end, no matter what your beliefs about the institution of marriage (and mine are certainly mixed), you can’t help being deeply touched but also surprised by how this legal team seemed to steamroll over the opposition.
Like The Case Against 8, E-Team is the kind of story that is well served by straightforward vérité filmmaking. It follows the brave characters working for Human Rights Watch that proactively enter areas of war and conflict to record and document bombings, massacres, and other horrific incidents often denied by perpetrators and that news crews can’t or don’t get to. In this case, the focus is largely on Syria and Libya, but the film also revisits the conflict in the Balkans where the E-Team (Emergency Team) got its start, and where we also get to remember the smug Milosevic squirming a bit as one of the E-Team founders refutes his claims at the Hague. The film focuses on a couple—a Russian woman full of moxie and her more subdued Norwegian husband—and the first scene shows them running across the Syrian border early in the morning and going on to document a massacre site. We soon learn she is pregnant. The other characters are experienced and surprisingly mellow human-rights investigators who are compelling in their dedication to collecting evidence that will hopefully make the world a better place. One Swiss investigator with an expertise in identifying weaponry plainly states that it “feels good fucking with bad people.” Bravo to that!
While the human rights abuses documented in E-Team are, shamefully, unsurprising, the story in Love Child seems like it could come from dystopian science fiction: a young couple in South Korea lets their infant die of malnutrition after leaving it alone at home for stretches of 10 hours at a time. Where were they? Playing hours and hours of Internet gaming at a sprawling Internet café-like place chock full of computer screens. How could this happen? Well, without attempting to definitively explain how this happened, the film attempts to contextualize how South Korea is one of the most wired places on earth for high-speed connections and how online gaming has come to dominate much of the free time of young Koreans. The particular game that this couple was playing includes an added irony—in it they were raising a young avatar girl. The film’s non-linear style reflects not only the bizarre nature of the story but, aesthetically, the textured digital, pixilated, and blurry-colored life both inside these video games (where long-limbed and big busted white women warriors seem to be the preferred avatar) as well as the unique atmosphere of South Korean cities, where large L.E.D. panels and pink-hued lights seem to proliferate. The case, it turns out, led to new laws that put internet gaming addiction up there with gambling, drugs, and alcohol and, in one comical scene, we visit a clinic that is supposed to treat people for this new addiction. The technique? Let them play the games, stop, and then show them something unpleasant. (In this case it seems to be a screaming woman.) Effective? Well, that’s inconclusive. What is conclusive is that, as screens proliferate in all shapes and sizes, the interplay between the graphics and sounds of processed ones and zeros and the physical world are blending. Watching the film I couldn’t help but thinking about my son and his friends who stand in front of a big flat screen TV in the colorful world of Super Mario Bros or LEGO City: Undercover, places that are magical, vibrant, full of adventure, and harmless?
Both We Come As Friends, the new film from the maker of the incredible Darwin’s Nightmare, and Concerning Violence, from the team that brought The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, use effective techniques to delve into the expanse of madness and chaos that has defined much of Africa in post-colonial times. Like Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s new film captures surreal and depressingly absurd situations and locations that speak to an eviscerated continent. Sauper flies a custom-built two-seater airplane around Sudan just before the creation of the newest country in the world: South Sudan. Along the way we visit some rather silly Chinese oil company managers whose compound has a huge mosque on it, groups of Christian soldiers in brand new camouflage yelling “Hallelujah,” an eccentric fellow hanging out by a crashed passenger jet, drunken Scots, ex-Soviet pilots, missionaries, warlords, and, of course, many Sudanese whose faces—which the camera studies closely—say more than any talking head expert or academic.
In the Sudan region we see close-up the dire interplay of superpowers as China aligns with the Muslim north and the United States aligns with the “new” South led by a variety of sweaty and bragging warlords and a leader with a huge cowboy hat given to him by George W. Bush. Of course, and as one would only expect, there is much conflict essentially related to who is going to get to extract resources like oil. It’s “Hallelujah” vs. “Allahu Akbar” with a lot of mines thrown in between and, with keen instinct, Sauper simply finds situations and lets them play out: an American drones on through a bad microphone before dedicating a power plant to a village as a tribal shaman yells and continuously runs through the scene; missionaries calling an area “New Texas” and forcing socks on naked, crying children while women in full tribal gear walk by wearing oversized donated bras; villagers listening to solar-powered audio Bibles in which the verse is accompanied by histrionic sound effects; dust storms of detritus; a makeshift village in an unofficial graveyard; and a man who says he will not give any of his land away as he holds a document he signed that says he gave it all away to a multinational corporation. The list goes on and the scenes are more telling about the contemporary face of post-colonialism than a hundred news segments.
In Concerning Violence the technique is very different and, in a way, it serves as a historical partner to Sauper’s film. With a subtitle that sounds like the title of a Semiotext(e) book (Nine Scenes for the Anti-Imperialistic Self Defense), Concerning Violence mines the news archives (much of it from Sweden) to re-edit and repurpose raw footage from anti-imperialist struggles in Africa over the last 60 years. These scenes are grouped in themes and accompanied by text from Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth, read by “Ms.” Lauryn Hill of Fugees fame. Fanon’s text is uncompromising about the post-colonial mentality as well as the characteristics of the colonizers, and the archival material is equally intense and mesmerizing. As Fanon states, “Decolonization is always a violent process,” and this becomes the film’s defining theme, driven home by interviews with hateful whites at their country club right before Rhodesian independence, women guerrillas in Mozambique, and soon-to-be-assassinated leaders in Burkina Faso. Spaced-out missionaries in 1952 talk about building a church before building hospitals or schools; a young mother missing an arm nurses an infant missing a leg; Portuguese soldiers in Guinea-Bissau stand dazed after a firefight and then gingerly move the ripped-apart body of one of their team. The compilation technique is reminiscent of the films of Emile de Antonio such as In the Year of the Pig and the effect is a bitter and blistering plea to revisit the history of a continent destroyed by colonization and even more so by the struggles to decolonize. The film succeeds in portraying the very breadth of colonial rule, a side of the story often consciously expurgated from the Western media stream.