Wednesday, February 09, 2005

2005 Sundance Festival: The Documentaries 

As I mentioned in the first post, the documentaries this year were incredibly strong. (We saw mostly American and one foreign doc.) In fact, they were so good that the six films in the “best” category below are not necessarily in absolute order of preference. They are all terrific for different reasons.

The Best
Unknown White Male
A 34-year old man with a British accent turned up in Coney Island with no idea of who he was, or how he got there. Through luck and chance, the man was finally identified as Doug Bruce.

Rupert Murray, friend of 15 years, was erased from Doug Bruce’s along with all the rest of life. Hearing of what had transpired with his friend, Murray wrote Doug Bruce a letter and requested Bruce’s permission to document his predicament. They re-met and Mr. Bruce agreed. The result is an extraordinary film that follows an unimaginable journey to build a life anew. From re-meeting his father and sisters to seeing snow for what is effectively the first time, Mr. Bruce works to rewrite the blank slate of his mind. Watching Unknown White Male raises painful and fundamental existential questions about the interplay of memory, personality and identity in establishing our humanity. I found it astonishing, moving and terribly compelling.

Remember the US/Russia Olympic Hockey rivalry? Now imagine it with quadriplegics! Murderball is about the men who play Quad Rugby – rugby played by ferocious quadriplegics in Mad Max style wheelchairs. You’ve never seen anything like it and you’ve probably never met anyone like them: their life stories are often worthy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

All of the subjects of Murderball are incredibly charismatic (especially the hard charging Mark Zupan), and the US/Canada rivalry is truly fierce. The rivalry is inspired because Joe Soares, the Canadian team coach, is a former American champion who became a turncoat when he was cut from the US team. (Soares is so tough that if there was a movie of his life he could only be portrayed by Robert Duvall.)

Murderball manages to weave fast-paced, down-to-the-buzzer sports action with the moving, compelling and inspiring stories of the athletes in competition. This film will win your heart and blow your mind. Don’t miss it.

Twist of Faith
This fantastic film was nominated for the Academy Award this year*. And it should have been because in my estimation, Twist of Faith is a classic example of what a documentary can do: illustrate the human complexities of a timely topic by using one person’s situation as a microcosm. The topic is child sexual abuse by clergy and our subject is Tony Comes, a brave Toledo firefighter.

Comes did not publicly acknowledge his childhood abuse at the hands of the family priest until he discovered that he had purchased a brand new home only five doors down from his abuser.

The Comes family make terrific subjects; Tony Comes is engaging, extremely forthcoming about his state of mind from moment to moment, and unexpectedly articulate to boot. Twist of Faith follows his (and his family’s) struggle to deal with the flood of emotions that burst forth when he tells his wife, parents and the world what happened as well. It also details his attempts to get the local archdiocese to acknowledge the wrongdoing. It’s a gripping, timely story and is presented extremely well.

It’s worth noting that one of the best parts of the Sundance experience is the opportunity you have to participate in Q&A with the film makers and, in the case of documentaries, with the subjects as well. The presence of Tony and Wendy Comes provided a cathartic experience for the audience at our screening. We were all so caught up in their story and so empathic for their struggles that I think collectively it was helpful to check in with the Comes family and get an update on their wellbeing.

*Interestingly, Twist is up against two other docs from last year’s festival, Born into Brothels and Super Size Me. And while I expect it will lose to Super Size Me because SSM is more innovative in terms of filmmaking technique, Twist of Faith is a far more emotionally resonant work.

Why We Fight
What a family the Jareckis are! Andrew made Capturing the Friedmans and his brother Eugene made The Trials of Henry Kissinger and now Why We Fight, which won best doc at Sundance.

Why We Fight is Eugene Jarecki’s exploration of how the forces that Eisenhower in his farewell speech dubbed the “military-industrial complex” have evolved into a triangle of relationships between the military, private contractors, and government officials. Jarecki interviews key players across all three legs of the military-industrial complex, along with members of what one subject argues is the latest addition to the web of symbiotic relationships: the Washington policy institutes known colloquially as “think tanks.”

Chronologically, the film takes us from Eisenhower’s speech through various American military entanglements and finally into Iraq. The film presents Iraq as a microcosm of the dangers of the interwoven employment histories and mixed loyalties of those individuals who have migrated through the various arms of the military-industrial octopus.

For instance, the film details how Americans have been oversold on the efficacy of “smart weapons” by contrasting the original claims of their effectiveness in the so-called “decapitation strikes” that launched the war effort with scenes of the actual strike zones, making clear that where in specific cases there was 100% success and zero collateral damage reported, the ratio was exactly the opposite.

Why We Fight makes a cogent and balanced argument that these unchecked political forces have created a headless beast that has yielded the kind of “standing army” that our first president George Washington warned the country would turn the United States into an imperial power.

In short, Why We Fight is the film Michael Moore might have made, were he as articulate and talented as he is driven.

Shakespeare Behind Bars
This film is the story of a group of convicts at a Kentucky prison who participate in a program where they rehearse and perform full productions from the canon. At the time that this film was made, the troupe was working on The Tempest.

It’s hard to describe how moved I was to see these men struggle with the text. And I don’t mean intellectually struggling to understand the text. These men have no more or less trouble than anyone else with that. I mean watching the struggle of a truly committed actor to find the truth in himself that will give him emotional access to the text. To watch a convict recognize Caliban’s rage as rage he himself has once owned. To watch a murderer who has a beloved daughter find in himself the connection to Propero’s relationship to Miranda. And to watch their director, the saintly Curt Tofteland who has entered their world every week for 10 years, facilitate their growth as individuals and as a group of friends and colleagues.

The film raises many issues surrounding crime, punishment, incarceration and most of all redemption. Directed and edited with an extremely gentle hand, Shakespeare Behind Bars is both a bittersweet and unexpectedly joyful work.

Rock School
This film is going to be a crowd pleaser, but there’s a lot more to it than what sits on the surface: Paul Green runs a Philadelphia after-school program that teaches very young kids and teens how to play rock and roll. And while Green can be bright, funny, entertaining and iconoclastic, he is also a self-centered, abusive crazy man. His students range from 6 year old twin Ozzie wannabees, to a young guitar prodigy to a talented young woman who may well some day climb the college rock charts. Some of the kids flourish under his tutelage and others suffer. Together, Green and his protégés have created a community of oddballs pursuing their peculiar urge to rock the house.

The Education of Shelby Knox
Shelby Knox a paradox. A high school student in Lubbock, Texas from a Southern Baptist and Republican family, she took an oath to preserve her virginity until marriage. Then she joined a student council and fought against the Superintendent and the local school board to try to institute a complete sex education program in the school system that extended beyond the current abstinence-based agenda. The movie documents her growth as an advocate for underdog causes, as a person and as a politician. And her parent’s struggle to support their alien adolescent as she moves from her first controversial topic to one that’s even more so.

Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story
Emile Griffith was a simple hat designer from the Caribbean working in New York’s garment district. His boss noticed his rippled physique and used his position as a father figure to turn Emile against his gentle nature and goad him into becoming a champion boxer. How this poor soul ended up killing a man in the ring after being called a maricon at the weigh-in is a sad tale. If only he had been allowed to be a hat maker.

Grizzly Man
Timothy Treadwell lived among the Alaskan Grizzly bears for 13 summers. Styling himself as their protector from poachers, he filmed himself with the bears in their natural habitat. Werner Herzog uses Treadwell’s own footage to show us the fearsome nature of the bears, Treadwell’s tenuous existence in their midst, and his final descent into mania that lead to the inevitable for Treadwell and his unfortunate girlfriend. Bizarre, sad, shocking and chock-full of car wreck fascination.

The Worst
Protocols of Zion
Given the fact that anti-Semites everywhere continue to disseminate this piece of Tsarist propaganda (If you don’t know what The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is, google it.), it bewilders me why filmmaker Mark Levin spends so little time on its origins. If you know nothing about modern anti-Semitism, then this film might be worth seeing. But for those who know, this film adds nothing. Additionally, Levin inserts himself needlessly into the film (e.g., filming himself watching Daniel Pearl’s murder).

Perhaps the most needless tragedy here is that Levin clearly missed the most interesting film that’s right in front of him: his family. The film skims briefly over such interesting things such as that his father Al Levin has let his graffiti artist grandchildren spray paint the exterior of his suburban New Jersey home and has apparently had a longstanding relationship with an imprisoned ex-white supremacist. Levin's grandfather, Herman Levin, helped to found the Jewish Reconstructionist movement in the 1930s after growing displeased with the role of women in his Conservative synagogue. Next time, Mr. Levin should take advantage of the great raw material in his own backyard.

Frozen Angels
A documentary about Los Angeles’ starring role in the reproductive technology arena, Frozen Angels has every reason to be more interesting than it is. It has a cast of characters that includes a loudmouth radio host who also runs a surrogacy agency and a woman who has been a surrogate for multiple families. Soporific editing and a tentative point of view make a needless bore out of what could have been a fascinating study.
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