I write this column from the Sundance Film Festival. Robert Redford in his opening remarks made clear that the Festival and Sundance Institute remain committed to independent filmmaking and to directors who continue to buck all odds.
Sundance, like the Tribeca and SXSW film festivals, has made documentaries a core part of its programming, and one of the most compelling reasons to attend these festivals is to view these documentary films that might never otherwise see the light of day, given the current state of theatrical distribution, or would be lost and forgotten without these festivals to create buzz.
The other way for documentaries to gain exposure is to qualify for consideration for an Academy Award nomination. Previously, films had to have had a one-week commercial run in a theater in New York and Los Angeles to qualify, but now The Academy has changed its rules, and meeting the commercial-run requirement will not be enough. The film will also have to have been reviewed in The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, making it even more difficult for independent doc makers who lack the visibility and clout of someone like radical millionaire Michael Moore to be considered. It will be interesting to watch this battle unfold over the course of the next year.
But back to Sundance. Here are four documentary films I’ve seen so far that I would like readers to make note of. The first premieres on PBS on February 13. I will revisit the others when they run in NYC.
1. Slavery by Another Name, directed by Sam Pollard. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon, this documentary, premiering on PBS on February 13, is a must see if you care about American history and want to learn about how slavery in the form of forced labor continued in both the North and the South long after the Civil War. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson enacted a series of laws that allowed southern states to round up, arrest and imprison African Americans almost at whim and turn them into indentured slaves who were leased out for profit by state-run prison systems. The film’s exploration of this ugly and widespread practice—which coincided with the beginning of Jim Crow laws—teaches Americans one more history lesson that we have not been taught and will, I hope, shock you as it did me.
2. The Atomic States of America, directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Hovering in the background of the fracking debate so well documented in Josh Fox’s 2010 Sundance Special Jury Prize award-winning Gasland, is the reality of the resur
gence of support for nuclear power plants. Obama has pledged billions of taxpayer dollars to build new reactors that, despite Japan’s Fukushima disaster, Congress and the President still seem hell-bent on constructing. This important and confrontational documentary tells the frightening story of problems, accidents and risks of disaster at nuclear plants that already exist across the U.S. and roots this almost mind-boggling information in the personal stories of people such as Kelly McMasters, whose memoir about growing up in the nuclear-reactor community of Shirley, Long Island was the basis for the film. “The Atomic States of America” makes it possible for viewers to understand the real dangers of atomic power and how to take action against them.
3. How To Survive A Plague, directed by David France. This is the first documentary to chronicle the role that ACT UP activists played in the fight against AIDS and the homophobia that surrounded it. While there is still a much larger story to be told, France has chosen to focus on a small group of mostly men who broke off from ACT UP’s Treatment and Data Committee and founded the Treatment Action Group (TAG), which focused on pushing for the development of new therapies. Iris Long, PhD, taught the boys science, and Mark Harrington then wrote the AIDS Treatment Manual that changed everything. In his first film, France, a well know writer, skillfully tells the story of how this group took on the government and the pharmaceutical industry to fast-track drugs and helped bring protease inhibitors to market. It is a complex story, and France manages to avoid many of the potential pitfalls of telling history that is so recent. I had a difficult time watching footage of so many people I worked with in ACT UP who have passed. Focusing on Bob Rafsky and Peter Staley to personalize the story was a smart choice. Rafsky, in many ways, was the public face of ACT UP until he died in February 1993. His confrontation with Bill Clinton in April 1992 is but one of the many unforgettable moments in the film.
4. The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick. The fearless Dick has once again taken the scab off a festering secret, just as he did in his earlier documentary Twist of Faith, about the Roman Catholic clergy’s sexual molestation of young people. In The Invisible War, he documents the reality of rape and sexual assault of women and men who join the military by their fellow soldiers and what happened to a group of women—all quite different—and one man who found the courage to go public. It is not a pretty picture—the military, in fact, punishes the victims—but it is a compelling revelation of how deeply sexism is still
rooted in the military. Watching this documentary should make parents and other relatives and friends very concerned about any young woman who says she wants to join the military.
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Greenwich Village, Utah!
Park City Utah’s year-round population is approximately 7,600 people, but during Sundance it expands to 50,000—sort of like the Village on a hot summer night. But Villagers know how to navigate crowds no matter where they are, and during Sundance, many of them are here. I’ve run into enough high profile, creative Village folk on Park City streets and in theaters to fill Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn any night of the week. Grand Jury Narrative Prize competitors Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On) and Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks) are here, as are documentary filmmakers Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) and David France (How to Survive A Plague). Marina Abromović is the subject of the documentary The Artist is Present. Directors Timothy Greenfeld-Sanders (About Face) and Rory Kennedy (Ethel), producer Marc Weiss (A Fierce Green Fire) and super-indie P.R. guru Susan Norget are in attendance, and of course Bank Street’s über-indie lord Harvey Weinstein and über-mentor/producer Ted Hope are present as well. Actors Stella Schnabel and Julie Delpy are here, and so is the young actor Chris Lenk from Keep the Lights On, who ran up to me at the Shorts Awards party (held in a bowling alley) and asked, “Do you have a little white dog that you walk on Perry Street?” I answered, “Yes, Mr. Butter,” and he said, “I see you all the time. I live on Perry Street.” And these are just the Villagers I’ve run into!