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Preview: Seven Documentary Tropes at Sundance 2014

Thompson on Hollywood By David D'Arcy | Thompson on Hollywood December 6, 2013 at 1:22PM

The docs are announced for Sundance 2014. In a world where newspapers vanish by the day, the subjects that they take on bear watching.
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Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

3. The hot-topic political debate doc. 

"The Case Against 8" by Ben Cotner and Ryan White scrutinizes the campaign to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriages, focusing on the strange bedfellows that formed an odd alliance. There will be cause for celebration, as there was with "How to Survive a Plague" (2012), by David France, a precursor in the Sundance procession of AIDS docs which tracked the evolution of some AIDS protesters from demonstrators into experts on the disease.

In Utah, the focus is likely to turn away from the legal team that helped make gay marriage a possibility again in California, and toward the opponents of same-sex marriage. What better place than the Mormon stronghold to look at the role that the Mormon Church played in financing the referendum that brought Prop 8 to voters in 2008, pouring money into the state?

And what better time than the present, when the Catholic Church, the other mainstay of Prop 8, is now led by a new Pope, Francis, who denounces Capitalism and says that the Church should move away from condemning homosexuality (echoing the Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, subject of another recent film at Sundance)?  Who would have thought that a Pope would sound more reasonable than the U.S. House of Representatives?

From the other side of the religious political spectrum comes "Cesar’s Last Fast," by Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee, a tribute to Cesar Chavez, the farm workers’ leader and ardent Catholic who demonstrated and fasted on behalf of low-paid workers for whom a union was thought unimaginable. Think of fast food workers striking today. Back in those days, priests and bishops (even the now–discredited Cardinal Roger Mahony) marched with Chavez.  As with "The Case Against 8," "Cesar’s Last Fast" will take its message (or homage) to a state where the politics couldn’t be less welcoming. Bear in mind that for most Utahans, the National Rifle Association is what comes closest to a union.        

But one of the most controversial films at Sundance looks at the price of education, a benefit that has been beyond debate. Is college worth it, given the price, is the question raised in "Ivory Tower" by Andrew Rossi ("Page One: Inside the New York Times," 2011). Forget about Harvard, which seems to have retained its value. One of the obvious examples of education inflation is film school, ballooning in enrollment in the US and elsewhere. A year at NYU cost $55,000 the last time I checked, with what prospects afterward, and what do students learn? There’s another problem with film schools. The Sundance effect was a crucial factor in their expansion. If there’s a crisis, who’s to blame? Sounds like a panel. 

4. The tech-umentary doc. 

This year that film is "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz" by Brian Knappenberger ("We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists"). At Sundance 2013, "We Steal Secrets" by Alex Gibney revealed some of the internal complications of Julian Assange as it exposed spying by nations that now condemn the Wikileaks founder. (And that was before Edward Snowden, now another US target, started his downloading campaign.) Swartz, a brilliant prodigy whose life seemed to be on a parallel mission, wasn’t so lucky – a suicide at 26.  The probing of the relationship between technology and ethics, between information and power, could not be more timely. Nor could the question of whether this director is making his film available for free on the internet.

Return to Homs

That tech domain goes off in an infinite number of vectors. Sundance brings us a taste of the dystopian "Brave New World" strain. "Love Child," by Valeries Veatch (South Korea/USA), follows the trial of a Korean couple whose obsession with a virtual world led to the death of their daughter.  Web Junkie, by the Israelis Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, visits a treatment center in Beijing for teenagers who are diagnosed with internet addiction.

5. The Middle East doc.

Be prepared for World Docs at SD 2014 to examine subjects that have already been made into features. Palestine Oscar entry "Omar," which premiered at Venice this year, follows an Arab youth who worked for the Israelis on the West Bank, in an adventure story that didn’t lack for realism or despair.

Measuring how the truth measure up against the dramatic truth, "The Green Prince" by Nadav Schirman adapts "Son of Hamas," the autobiography of Mosan Hasan Yousef, the son of a Hamas leader and a convert to Christianity who worked for Israeli intelligence and now lives in Los Angeles. Yes, everyone does end up there. Incendiary? It’s a delicate subject. There should be a prize for anyone who tries to attend the premiere as “talent,” and a special prize for anyone in the film who gets through the metal detector. I’m assuming that there will be high security.

Schirman, an Israeli, made "The Champagne Spy" (2008) about Wolfgang Lotz, an Israeli spy posing as a German equestrian who worked in Egypt for years, and was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Lotz was freed in a prisoner exchange after the Six Day War of 1967, and eventually worked in the sports department of the German department store Kaufhof.

Schirman’s next film was "In a Dark Room" (2012), recollections of the Magdalena Kopp, the unfortunate East German terrorist who married the notorious Venezuelan assassin, Carlos “The Jackal” Ramirez. If there were ever any truth to the expression, “marriage made in hell,” it’s here. Based on those two films, I have high expectations for Schirman's "The Green Prince," a German co-production involving the veteran Karl “Baumi” Baumgartner. The doc should also be a sought-after acquisition. Other producers are John Batsek ("Project Nim," "My Kid Could Paint That," "The Pat Tillman Story") and Simon Chinn ("Man on Wire").  Sequel jokes?

Not all the docs in the World Competition are world premieres. "Return to Homs" by Talal Derki was the opening night film at IDFA in Amsterdam, which showed a range of docs from the Middle East. As the hot spot of the moment, it seems right for Sundance to show a film about a civil war that shows no sign of abating.  

This article is related to: Documentary, Documentaries, Sundance Film Festival, Festivals


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