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Documentaries Come Out of the Shadow at Sundance

Award season is upon. The parade of Golden Globes, Oscars etc… will soon begin and the internet will be drowning in commentary. Yet, these awards are all a bit different then they used to be. Documentary film is now in the spotlight and Patricia Aufderheide, author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction is here to help us identify which films to watch for, whether you are on your way to Sundance (which begins next week) or lining up your queue at Netflicks.

The word “documentary” used to be a synonym for dreary. It was what happened to you in grade school when they finished the curriculum but not the school year. Public relations people called it the “d-word.” At film festivals, documentarians were the flannel shirts in a sea of Spandex. Film critics were asked, “Did you see the movies, or just the documentaries?”

9780195182705.jpgWell, that’s all over now. Michael Moore (Sicko) and Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound), Jacques Perrin (Winged Migration) and Al Gore with director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) have reminded people just how good going to the documentaries can be.

And it’s never been easier to find them. PBS’s signature doc series Independent Lens and P.O.V.; home-delivery services like Netflix and iTunes; and Landmark theaters’ doc selections have been bringing them ever closer to you. Viewers have more freedom of choice, they’ve been exercising it, and they’re choosing docs.

Documentaries are now big business. You can tell by watching the crowds at the Sundance Film Festival. These days, in the middle of January, thousands of people stand in the snow in Park City, Utah, waiting patiently for buses to take them to lines where they can wait patiently for a chance to watch…a documentary. They don’t even think of skiing.

This year, tickets I’ll be fighting for include:

*Durakovo: Village of Fools, a French-made documentary about a Russian proto-fascist who runs an anti-Western, pro-czar (!) camp for troubled youth. I’m fascinated because this film seems to be about the conflicts that globalization brings. Public television’s ITVS found it and is bringing it to U.S. viewers.

*Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Alex Gibney is a brilliant public-affairs producer (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a financial whodunit), whose Taxi to the Dark Side (about Abu Ghraib) will be in cineplexes at the same time his new biography is releasing at Sundance. Look for this in Landmark theaters and Netflix.

*Nerakhoon( The Betrayal). Ellen Kuras is a legendary cinematographer, who teamed up with a Laotian man, Thavisouk Phrasavath, to tell his exemplary story—one of the wreckage of a society and the recreation of culture. It should be beautiful, and with luck it’ll also be a good story. Will you get to see this? Sundance dealmaking will tell.

*Patti Smith: Dream of Life. The director, Steven Sebring, chronicles Smith’s creative life over 11 years. I figure you’re either going to love it or hate it, depending on how you feel about Patti Smith (me: yay, but dressed in black if you know what I mean). Look for it on public television which helped to finance it.

*Recycle. Jordanian director Al Massad describes the conditions that create terrorism in the poorest neighborhoods of Zarqa, the second city of Jordan. I’m excited about this because I think documentaries can reveal the human processes behind headlines, and help us to understand our world in ways that let us connect. I’m going to hope this is good and that it gets distribution. Too often Middle East-themed films get short-shrifted in the marketplace.

*Trouble the Water. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal do great research, have worked with Michael Moore and know how to get a story. In this film, they seek out the story of a few people who assert the vitality of New Orleans grassroots culture, in spite of neglect and disrespect. I’m going because I respect the previous work of the directors. Its future? Wait and see.

*Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Morgan Spurlock, the guy who brought us Super Sized Me, is back with a tale about looking for Osama in all the wrong places. He’s got a populist sensibility that I want to see exercised on this topic. He got French backing for this project. Everyone loves Morgan.

I hope these movies are good, and if they are, that you get to see them. But if I see you in the Sundance ticket line, I hope you’re in back of me.

Recent Comments

  1. Erin Donovan

    Great post, Rebecca.

    The film I get asked about a lot is “Stranded” about the Andes plane crash survivors. It won the IDFA grand prize and will be debuting at Sundance later this month. I think it has a lot of crossover appeal, docs with a tinge of adventure do well in the States and seriously… plane crash survivors!

  2. [...] and at documentary festivals such as Full Frame and Silverdocs, I’m inclined to agree.  In a blog post on the Oxford UP blog, Aufderheide describes, in the context of the upcoming Sundance Film [...]

  3. Rebecca

    Check out Chuck Tryon’s analysis at http://www.chutry.wordherders.net/wp/?p=1799.

  4. Bob

    Check out Grassroots Films doumentary on “The Human Experience”

  5. Anton Leonard

    Take a look at Bra Boys, a documentary about a hardcore surfer community in Australia.

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