By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance 2013 Preview: US Documentary Competition Picks

Much like last year’s US Dramatic preview, my curtain-raiser on the US Documentary competition for the 2012 Sundance is packed with notable alumni: Chasing Ice, Detropia, The House I Live In, The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles all played at Park City last January. This year’s slate could potentially be just as solid; the next week or so we’ll find out which Sundance docs are hot for 2013. Here are my picks.

Title: 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

What It’s About: In 2011, seemingly overnight, Occupy captured the imagination of our nation—and the world. The sweeping story of the birth of a movement, 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film follows a disparate group of activists who converge on lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to build a society organized by nonhierarchical decision-making structures. Inspired by the idea that wealth and political power are dangerously concentrated, grassroots groups from Minneapolis to Mississippi to Oakland soon follow suit, converging to focus on issues crucial to their own communities. After confrontations, expulsions, and mass arrests, the movement finds itself at a crossroad. What’s next?

Designed in part as an experiment modeled on Occupy’s process, the film employs multiple cameras around the country to capture the kinetic, immediate experience on the ground, peppered with a comprehensive range of viewpoints from activists, experts, and detractors. In an era of hopelessness and resignation, this film is a reminder that another world order is still possible.

Why It’s Interesting: Okay, honestly, this film could very well be a rudderless mess. But even if it is, it could also be a mess that works by emulating the movement about which it’s telling a story, right? And that story is one of the most interesting things to happen in our recent history, which in and of itself I find compelling. There’s not a lot to go on with this one other than knowing generally what it’s about and how it was constructed, but it could work in the same way that Life in a Day (aka the film made possible by the existence of the Internet) worked. We’ll see. Worth a look-see anyhow.

Title: After Tiller

What It’s About: Since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas in 2009, only four doctors in the United States continue to perform third-trimester abortions. These physicians, all colleagues of Dr. Tiller, sacrifice their safety and personal lives in the name of their fierce, unwavering conviction to help women. But for some in the pro-life movement, these doctors are “murderers” who must be stopped.

Offering audiences an unprecedented perspective, After Tiller is an intimate look into each of the four physicians’ private and professional struggles. Wrenching moments in the clinics, when they gently counsel distraught patients facing grievous losses, force us to step into the shoes of both practitioner and patient and confront the full complexity of each decision. Decades after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the issue remains one of the most volatile in our public sphere. After Tiller sensitively and artfully extricates the controversy from the ideological realm and humanizes those who have been demonized.

Why It’s Interesting: I have mixed and complicated feelings about this subject matter. As a feminist chick who supports abortion rights generally, and who found Tiller’s assassination to be abhorrent, I’m interested in the story of the aftermath on women’s access to abortion. On the other hand, while I support intellectually the right of a woman to a third-trimester abortion, emotionally and morally I have a difficult time accepting the idea of aborting a viable fetus outside of the existence of a medical issue that truly necessitates it, so I’m feeling a little squeamish about that aspect of this film. Regardless, it’s a compelling topic. What I’m most interested in is seeing how the directors handle the subject matter, and the level of objectivity they bring to it.

Title: American Promise

What It’s About: In 1999, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned the camera on themselves and began filming their five-year-old son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, as they started kindergarten at the prestigious Dalton School just as the private institution was committing to diversify its student body. Their cameras continued to follow both families for another 12 years as the paths of the two boys diverged—one continued private school while the other pursued a very different route through the public education system.

American Promise is an epic and groundbreaking documentary charged with the hope that every child can reach his or her full potential and contribute to a better future for our country. It calls into question commonly held assumptions about educational access and what factors really influence academic performance. Stephenson and Brewster deliver a rare, intimate, and emotional portrait of black middle-class family life, humanizing the unique journey of African-American boys as they face the real-life hurdles society poses for young men of color, inside and outside the classroom.

Why It’s Interesting: Now this one really sounds interesting. Educational access and the disparity between our public schools and private schools is an issue near and dear to my heart, and I’m curious to see how the filmmakers handle making a doc about their own son and his best friend. Will they retain a sense of objectivity? Or perhaps a better question might be: Should they?

Title: Cutie and the Boxer

What It’s About: Zachary Heinzerling’s remarkable debut is an indelible portrait of art, companionship, and the 40-year love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Japanese artists who meet and marry in New York in the early 1970s. Surviving decades of hardship, resentment, financial anxiety, thwarted aspirations, and Ushio’s chronic alcoholism, they are a study in artistic symbiosis.

Now 80 years old and finally sober, Ushio is preparing a joint exhibit with Noriko, yet he still treats her as a de facto assistant. Ushio’s mixed-media sculptures and “boxing” paintings, infused with chaotic energy, have brought notoriety—but rarely income. Meanwhile, Noriko, emerging from her husband’s shadow, creates intimate comic-styled watercolor and ink drawings that tell the story—a muted empowerment fantasy—of their alter egos, Cutie and Bullie.

Skillfully photographed and crafted, Cutie and the Boxer moves fluidly between past and present, employing a vérité aesthetic, archival footage, and beautifully animated sequences of Noriko’s drawings. Heinzerling seamlessly inhabits their space, observing its rhythms and textures, their complex dynamic, and the creative vitality that fuels their lives.

Why It’s Interesting: This is, by my own estimation, one of the more promising docs at Sundance this year, at least by early buzz and a particularly well-written catalog description. On my must-see list.

Title: God Loves Uganda

What It’s About: A battle rages in East Africa, where crosses replace guns and shouts of prayer roar louder than missiles. American evangelical Christians have chosen Uganda, with Africa’s youngest and most vulnerable population, as their ground zero in a battle for the soul of a continent. American missionaries and religious leaders are working with African pastors in a radical campaign to eradicate sin through the most extreme measures. The stakes are nothing less than life and death.

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams exposes the missionary movement in Uganda as an outgrowth of Africa’s colonialist past and a twenty-first century crusade to recreate a continent of people in the image and likeness of America’s most extreme fundamentalists. Williams captures vérité footage so shocking that viewers may be squirming in their seats. Masterfully crafted and astonishingly provocative, God Loves Uganda may be the most terrifying film of the year.

Why It’s Interesting: Whoo boy. The last time I saw a documentary that was the most terrifying film of the year, it was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s astonishing film Jesus Camp, which also explored religious fundamentalism. This one sounds potentially very hard to watch, but it could also be one of the better docs here at Sundance this year. Also a must-see.

Title: Life According to Sam

What It’s About: Progeria is an extremely rare and fatal disease, exemplified by accelerated aging in the children who are afflicted by it. There is no treatment. There is no cure. Enter Doctors Leslie Gordon and Scott Berns. When their son, Sam, was diagnosed with progeria at age two, the prognosis was grim—the couple were simply told to enjoy the few years they had left with their only son—but they weren’t willing to give up that easily. They spearheaded a campaign to save Sam and the other children in the world who share this devastating illness. In a little more than a decade, their extraordinary advances have led not only to identifying the gene that causes progeria and testing the first experimental drug to treat it but also to the amazing discovery that it is linked to the aging process in all of us.

With Life According to Sam, directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine return to the Sundance Film Festival (War Dance won the Documentary Directing Award in 2007) with a deeply touching account of one family’s courageous fight, reminding us to make the most of our lives in the time we are given.

Why It’s Interesting: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s excellent War/Dance was sensitive, moving, and generally terrific, and it was one of my favorite docs of 2007. This is another must-see.

Title: Valentine Road

What It’s About: On February 12, 2008, in Oxnard, California, eighth-grade student Brandon McInerney shot his classmate Larry King twice in the back of the head during first period. When Larry died two days later, his murder shocked the nation. Was this a hate crime, one perpetrated by a budding neo-Nazi whose masculinity was threatened by an effeminate gay kid who may have had a crush on him? Or was there even more to it?

Looking beyond all the copious news coverage of this tragic event, Valentine Road tells the story of two victims: the deceased and the murderer. With keen insight, the film connects the human wreckage of Larry’s and Brandon’s troubled lives—both physically abused, both from broken homes, and both searching for a sense of belonging. Filmmaker Marta Cunningham puts a human face on a critical issue challenging communities everywhere. Namely, how do we help kids like Brandon and Larry before tragedy happens? Haunting, infuriating, and powerful, Valentine Road shakes us to our core as it calls to question our very notion of justice.

Why It’s Interesting: With Sandy Hook still fresh and the gun control debate raging, this may be one of the most relevant and timely docs playing at Sundance this year. Another doc I have on my must-see list.

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DEADLINE: How does a visualist feel about people watching your films on a phone or VOD?
REFN: It depends on what kind of movie you make. We had great success with Only God Forgives on multiple platforms in the U.S. Young people will decide how they see it, when they want to see it. Don’t try to fight it. Embrace it. That’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re at the most exciting time since the invention of the wheel, in terms of creativity because distribution and accessibility have changed everything. A camera is still a camera whether it’s digital or not; there’s still sound; an actor is an actor. Ninety-nine percent of what you do is going to be seen on a smart phone – I know this is the greatest thing ever made because it allows people to choose, watching what you do on this format or go into a theater and see it on a screen. That means more people than ever will see what I do, which is personally satisfying in terms of vanity. But you have to be able to adapt, to accept things in different order and length than we’re used to. We are in a very, very exciting time.
~ Nic Refn to Jen Yamato

DEADLINE: You mention Tarantino, who with Christopher Nolan and a few other giants, saved film stock from extinction. To him, showing a digital film in a theater is the equivalent of watching TV in public. Make an argument for why digital is a good film making canvas.
REFN: Costwise, it’s a very effective way for young people to start making movies. You can make your movie on an iPhone. It’s wonderful seeing how my own children use technology to enhance creativity. For me it’s a wonderful canvas. Sure, I love grain in film. I love celluloid. But I also like creativity. I like crayons, I like pencils, I like paint. It’s all relative. Technology is more inclusive. A hundred years ago when film was invented, it was an elitist club. Very few people got to make it, very few people controlled it and very few people owned it. A hundred years later, storytelling through images is everyone’s domain. It’s ultimate capitalism. There are no rules, and no barriers and no Hays Code. Where does this go in another hundred years? I don’t know but I would love to see it.
~ Nic Refn To Jen Yamato