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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Preview: US Documentary Competition

Man, there are a lot of documentaries I want to see at Sundance this year. Last year I wasn’t so enamored of many of the catalog selections, which was a shame because I love docs as a genre. This year they’re making it tough, though … I’m going to have to really push my limits on how many films I can digest during Sundance in order to squeeze in all the docs I want to catch amongst the equally intriguing narrative choices. And I haven’t even started really digging into the World categories or Premieres yet, much less things like New Frontier. Whew. It’s shaping up to be another promising year for Sundance. Here are my top picks in the US Documentary category. (Note: All film descriptions from the Sundance catalog.)


Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski

What It’s About: When National Geographic photographer James Balog asked, “How can one take a picture of climate change?” his attention was immediately drawn to ice. Soon he was asked to do a cover story on glaciers that became the most popular and well-read piece in the magazine during the last five years. But for Balog, that story marked the beginning of a much larger and longer-term project that would reach epic proportions.

In this breathtakingly beautiful documentary, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski follows the indomitable photographer as he brings to life the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS)—a massive photography project that placed 30 cameras across three continents to gather visual evidence of the Earth’s melting ice. Chasing Ice tells the story of a visionary artist who, in facing his own mortality, bequeaths the magic of photography and the adventure of the expedition to a new generation and captures the most visible sign of climate change on the planet today.

Why It’s Interesting: This could be this year’s An Inconvenient Truth, or better yet, The Cove. Orlowski documents the work of the Extreme Ice Survey project, which documents time-lapse evidence of melting glaciers. Orlowski pulled a crack team together for this project, including Paula DuPré Pesmen, who produced The Cove, and Jerry Aronson, who produced The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. Sound design and mixing were done at Skywalker Sound, so the sound on this one should be solid; I’m interested generally in seeing what the production value of this film is and whether Orlowski tells a story that’s as compelling as the images captured by the project. Worth catching.

Detropia, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady

What It’s About: Detroit’s story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century— the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American dream; and now . . . the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos.

With its vivid, painterly palette and haunting score, DETROPIA sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution. As houses are demolished by the thousands, automobile-company wages plummet, institutions crumble, and tourists gawk at the “charming decay,” the film’s vibrant, gutsy characters glow and erupt like flames from the ashes. These soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers strive to make ends meet and make sense of it all, refusing to abandon hope or resistance. Their grit and pluck embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive postindustrial America and begins to envision a radically different future.

Why It’s Interesting: I’ve been a fan of Ewing and Grady’s work since The Boys of Baraka back in 2005, and their films Jesus Camp and 12th and Delaware further solidified the pair as a documentary power duo. The filmmakers’ thesis: “So goes Detroit, so goes the nation,” is an interesting one, and I’m curious to see how they’ve interwoven tales of the hustlers and movers and shakers rebuilding Detroit for the future. A new doc by Ewing and Grady is sure to be a solid bet during Sundance.

Finding North, Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush

What It’s About: America has lost its way in taking care of its own. The shocking fact is that one in six Americans doesn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. Even more disturbing is the fact that this new face of hunger is largely invisible. There are no breadlines in the streets, but increasing numbers of soup kitchens and food banks are feeding people who—though employed full-time—can’t make ends meet.

Finding North unveils the human stories behind the statistics: a rancher juggling two jobs and a small-town policeman rely on food pantries to survive between paychecks; a single working mom can’t afford consistent meals for her children; a short-order cook must travel more than an hour to purchase fruits and vegetables.

As it unravels the real societal costs and applies transparency to the causes of this hunger crisis in the richest country in the world, Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s bracing film explores ways that we as a nation can correct this alarming and unnecessary state of affairs.

Why It’s Interesting:We waste hundreds of billions of pounds in edible food each year in this country while our citizens go without enough to eat is just astounding. Given the current state of the economy, a documentary that tells stories of real people going hungry in America couldn’t be more timely.

The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki

What It’s About: Eugene Jarecki’s seminal film Why We Fight dissected the underbelly of the American war machine. Now, with scalpel-like precision, Jarecki turns his lens on a less visible war—one that is costing more lives, destroying more families, and quickly becoming a scourge on the soul of American society. In the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and destroyed impoverished communities at home and abroad. Yet drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever. Where did we go wrong, and what can be done?

Comprehensive in scope, heart wrenching in its humanity, and brilliant in its thesis, Jarecki’s new film grabs viewers and shakes them to their core. The House I Live In is not only the definitive film on the failure of America’s drug war, but it is also a masterpiece filled with hope and the potential to effect change. This film is surely destined for the annals of documentary history.

Why It’s Interesting: Eugene Jarecki has a doc tackling the war on drugs? Yes, please.

The Invisible War, Kirby Dick

What It’s About: Casualties of war rage beyond the battlefield. As ranks of women in the American military swell, so do incidents of rape. An estimated 30 percent of servicewomen and at least 1 percent of servicemen are sexually assaulted during their enlistment. And not by the enemy, but at the hands of fellow soldiers. With stark clarity and escalating revelations, The Invisible War exposes a rape epidemic in the armed forces, investigating the institutions that perpetuate it as well as its profound personal and social consequences.

We meet characters who embraced their service with pride and professionalism, only to have their idealism crushed. Their chilling stories of violent sexual assault become even more rattling as they seek justice in a Kafkaesque military legal system. As a courageous few defy victim-hood, they face their most challenging fight yet: penetrating a closed circuit where officers collude, cases are routinely swept under the rug, and few perpetrators are tried or convicted.

Why It’s Interesting: Kirby Dick’s 2004 doc Twist of Faith earned him an Oscar nod, and his follow-up to that, 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, skewered the MPAA. I’m eager to see his take on the subject of sexual violence within the military system, but I do hope he plays it a little more straight than he did with This Film is Not Yet Rated, where the attempts at cutesy distracted from an otherwise engaging subject.

Love Free or Die, Macky Alston

What It’s About: In June 2003, the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire came under fire when it became the first to elect an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as a bishop. Since that flash point, Robinson has been at the center of the contentious battle for LGBT people to receive full acceptance in the faith.

Director Macky Alston (whose film, Family Name, won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival) follows Robinson into the breach in the struggle for equality. While resolute in his calling, Robinson grows increasingly critical of the central role that religious institutions have played in fostering homophobia and hatred. He is pointedly not invited to a once-a-decade convocation of bishops and courts controversy by attending. His presence the next year for the Episcopal General Convention underscores the impact of its impending decisions about the church’s stance on the consecration of future gay bishops and the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Why It’s Interesting: I interviewed Gene Robinson when For the Bible Tells Me So, a doc about his election as the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopalian Church, played at Sundance way back in 2007. He made a strong impression on me as a warm, compassionate man dedicated to both his God and his principles. So I’m particularly anticipating seeing Love Free or Die, which follows Robinson post-For the Bible, and seeing how the years have changed his perspective. I loved Alston’s film Family Name, so I’m also looking forward to seeing the perspective he brings as a filmmaker to this story. Mark this one a “must see.”

Me @ The Zoo, Chris Moukarbel, Valerie Veatch

What It’s About: ME @ THE ZOO tells the fascinating modern tale of Chris Crocker, a video blogger from a small town in Tennessee. Part of the first generation that came of age under constant self-surveillance, he was raised on the Internet, and his online videos—including his infamous YouTube declaration “Leave Britney Alone!”—have been viewed hundreds of millions of times. The film weaves a tapestry of Web comments and response videos with reactions from Crocker fans and haters to map the controversial rise of an Internet folk hero.

This unconventional documentary excavates a personal story that was written on the Internet and, in the process, uncovers an identity indistinguishable from technology. In this exploration of the way video sharing and social platforms shape the way we tell our stories and mediate our lives, filmmakers Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch utilize the aesthetic imbedded in the story to craft a scintillating portrait of a young man who may be a star, a fad, or a harbinger of what lies ahead.

Why It’s Interesting: What is there to say on the subject of self-identity and living life through the internet that Ondi Timorer didn’t already cover with We Live in Public? I guess we’ll find out.


The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield

What It’s About: With the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, The Queen of Versailles follows billionaires Jackie and David’s rags-to-riches story to uncover the innate virtues and flaws of the American dream. We open on the triumphant construction of the biggest house in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles. Since a booming time-share business built on the real-estate bubble is financing it, the economic crisis brings progress to a halt and seals the fate of its owners. We witness the impact of this turn of fortune over the next two years in a riveting film fraught with delusion, denial, and self-effacing humor.

Lauren Greenfield instinctively knows what questions to ask, when to ask them, and, more importantly, where to put her camera to mine this overflowing treasure of events. She constructs a series of glowing metaphors to concoct a fascinating character study of parents, children, pets, and household employees as their privileged existence turns upside down. The end result is a portrait of a couple who dared to dream big but lose, still maintaining their unique brand of humility.

Why It’s Interesting: Lauren Greenfield previously made the outstanding documentary Thin, one of the best films of 2006, and followed that up with an equally outstanding short, Kids + Money. That alone would be reason enough to catch this wickedly intriguing look at the rise and fall of greedy rich people. Okay, okay, I’m judging based just on the catalog description, but c’mon! These people built a 90,000 square foot house! How sympathetic could they possibly be? Also, a lawsuit’s been filed against the Sundance Institute for screening this film, to which the Institute basically said, “Screw you, rich people!” Which makes it automatically the most “must see” doc at a fest since Errol Morris’ Tabloid — which got WAY more interesting when Joyce McKinney started crashing fest screenings with her clone dog. If there’s a cloned pet somewhere in this story, it will be practically perfect.

Slavery By Another Name, Sam Pollard

What It’s About: Sam Pollard performs a remarkable act of historical reclamation in this documentary, recounting the many ways in which American slavery persisted as a practice many decades after its supposed abolition. It is a story impressive in its sweep and alarming in the way that its larger theme—an American moral failure—has been obscured in history.

Facing economic catastrophe under Reconstruction, as well as freed black citizens’ political and social ascendancy, southern states found effective tactics to continue forced servitude in new modes. Techniques such as peonage (forced labor to pay off debts), leasing convicts to private business, or forcing convict labor in state-run enterprises subjected newly freed American citizens to inescapable conditions that insidiously operated under more palatable names than slavery.

Pollard recounts this slowly evolving hidden history, including the activism that powerfully confronted it, with a stirring combination of photographs, reenactments, and the testimony of key historians, bringing to light many shocking details, but more importantly redefining “emancipation” in history and American political life.

Why It’s Interesting: Slavery continuing under new names post-Civil War? I don’t remember learning about that in my history courses when I was growing up in Oklahoma. File this one under, “Docs that might teach me something new.” Hopefully in a cinematic and engaging way.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin