"My Prairie Home"
"My Prairie Home"

The docs have landed for Sundance 2014. In a world where newspapers are vanishing by the day, the subjects that documentarians take on bear watching. They're the new journalists of our day. 

Many of this year's subjects cover similar ground as last year's crop of Sundance docs – war, corruption, gender battles, injustice, science, technology, and music. And there are quite a few returning filmmakers such as Andrew Rossi and Nadine Schirman. One doc we've never seen before: a sports jock-umentary about Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter on LSD in the 1970’s.  

Pamela Smart on 'Oprah'
Pamela Smart on 'Oprah'

I've seen two of the films in the doc competition ("Return to Homs" and "My Prairie Home in the World"); see trailers below. Here's a preview of the TK doc tropes on view in Park City this year:

1. The prisoner sentenced to life who may or may not be innocent doc. 

Many will view "CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart" by Jeremiah Zagar (HBO) through the filter of Gus van Sant’s Nicole Kidman vehicle "To Die For," about the New Hampshire schoolteacher with everything in place, including her smile, who was sentenced to life in prison for arranging for a teenage boyfriend of 15 and his friends to kill her husband.

The documentary about a prisoner who was wrongfully charged and convicted is not new to Sundance. But is that what the Smart case is? Despite what the prosecutors claim, the film shows, and the jury finds, the carefully-groomed and intelligent now 40ish Pamela Smart – appropriately named for a woman who achieved high marks in degrees she earned in prison – insists that she did not arrange her husband's death. She was filmed saying just that on "Oprah," the closest thing in America to Lourdes or Jerusalem for a self-professed victim of injustice. Had she taken a plea, she might not be serving life without parole – in New York, because New Hampshire did not have a woman’s prison severe enough to punish her for such a crime. Bedford Hills, the maximum security prison for women in New York State, is hard time. I visited that prison at indoor temperatures near 100 degrees last summer, for a theater performance in which Pamela Smart was a participant.

Did she do it?  The best criminals can convince you of anything, and the very best are not in jail. Yet Pamela Smart hasn’t changed her story for more than 20 years. You’ll have to rely on the film’s account of her life. Pamela won’t be there for a question and answer session.

2. The medical mystery doc. 

In the U.S. Doc competition, Michael Rossato-Bennett's "Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory" looks at the way that music can connect people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease with their past, as memory dissolves with other brain functions.

Filmmakers have looked at this subject before. Alan Berliner (a Sundance alum for decades) won the feature doc prize at last year’s IDFA with "First Cousin, Once Removed" (now on the doc Oscar short list), a distillation of visits with a relative, Edwin Honig, who had been a professor of literature at Brown University and a translator of classics from Spanish and Portuguese. In Berliner’s observation of Honig, which tracks the deterioration of his cousin’s mind – as any film about dementia will have to do – poetry does not activate memory.  That discouraging fact does not keep the aging man from making Delphic pronouncements.  

For years, doctors treating Alzheimer’s patients have tried giving them toys and puzzles to activate or preserve mental capacity. Sometimes that activity seems to slow the process of cognitive loss. Does music? Is this Nero’s violin in the face of a demographic tsunami?