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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.


Cameras follow rebels in the city of fighting that erodes into rubble as we watch. Insurgents race through holes in building walls that enable them to cover distance inside without being visible to snipers, who seem to have the area covered from above.

The leitmotifs here are those holes, which can resemble endless caves (Ali Baba?) or an eternally reflecting mirror, with the frames shrinking as they head toward infinity.

As expected, the logistics of filming rebels in a Syrian city are near-impossible, yet the technical risks seem to be taken for granted by fighters filmed by their friends for whom the far greater logistical challenge is staying alive. One does that by staying out of the crosshairs of Syrian troops whose job is to shoot and kill them. 

Another leitmotif of the Syrian civil war is the rubble of urban warfare. We saw that in the former Yugoslavia, especially in cities like Vukovar, and in Grozny in Chechnya. (Films at Sundance that looked at Chechnya gave us those images.) Now we see the Syrian version of an urban destruction machine that spares nothing in its way –state-sponsored, since the rebels don’t have planes or artillery. Think of a government that shells and bombs its own citizens.  Is the Assad regime seeking to make Homs a place that isn’t worth fighting for? If that’s the strategy, it isn’t working.   

No doubt the situation in Homs could change by late January, most likely in the body count, but Return to Homs approaches the standoff there as constant fighting, for which there is no beginning and no end.

6. The music doc.

Another film that has been out (that term seems right) for a while – in release in Canada --is "My Prairie Home," Chelsea MacMullan’s portrait of the transgender singer Rae Spoon. Sundance almost always has a musical bio-doc, and this year’s has a whimsical imagination to it. Maybe there’s something in the water or the alfalfa north of the border with Minnesota, the origin point of the well-meaning but dull "A Prairie Home Companion." Spoon has a wit that fits with quirky surroundings that borrow a thing or two from Peewee Herman, between shots of the long highways that cross Canada.

Don’t be surprised if Spoon and those empry highways remind you of Brandon Teena in "Boys Don’t Cry" (Sundance 1999), nothing if not another prairie phenomenon. Despite what we hear about the evangelical household and provincial town that Spoon fled in Canada, things looks worse in the uncivilized territory south of the border, i.e., in the US. Get ready for another snub at Utah culture.Nick Cave gets his own profile in "20,000 Days on Earth," by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard – note the ampersand. The film is described as a combination of drama and reality. You could say the same about "My Prairie Home."  

7. The environment doc. 

In a festival where a cause rarely goes un-filmed for long, the environment gets its due in "Marmato," by Mark Grieco.  The curse of the town of Marmato in Colombia is the gold that lies underneath it. A Canadian mining firm wants it, citing a value of $20 billion. A gold rush tends to have a gravitational pull that can’t be resisted, and the innocents tend to lose. Resource rape is a horror in the developing world. The war over Marmato has lasted for 6 years.

Another side to the Gold Rush is the collateral damage, akin to what happens to people who have the misfortune of living near a gambling casino. "The Overnighters" by Jesse Moss looks at men working in the oil fields of North Dakota – the economic success story of the American prairie.

Success in the heartland comes with a price – no surprise to anyone who has spent time in the boom and bust West. 

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

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.