Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Documentary Director Roll Call at 2012 Sundance Film Festival

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Doc Soup Man Tom Roston weighs in on the balance of new to legendary directors in both the dramatic film and documentary selections at the Sundance Film Festival.

With this week’s announcement of the Documentary Premieres section of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off January 19, we now know the full slate of documentaries that will be getting a good shot at more exposure, and potential distribution, in 2012. Something struck me about the festival’s earlier released list of Competition films, generally considered the films that need a larger boost to get recognition, but I wanted to wait until this second list came out before weighing in.

Now that it has, I can ask the question that’s on my mind: how does Sundance treat dramatic films differently from documentaries? I’m quite sure that the programmers would say that they simply choose the films that are most inspired, most engaging, and provide the best experience for the festival audience. But isn’t it interesting how the documentary competition films come from such an impressive and venerable array of filmmakers, while the dramatic category is more obviously filled with below-the-radar directors? I’m not going to bother you by listing all of the dramatic films in competition, but the filmmakers are pretty much unknowns, outside of a couple of sort-of-recognizable filmmakers, including veteran Ben Lewin, actor and budding director Todd Louiso, and Jonathan Kasdan, who happens to be producer Lawrence Kasdan’s son.

While the dramatic category is populated by filmmakers starving for attention, the documentary competition films include those directed by Oscar nominees (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; Sam Pollard; Susan Froemke), legends (Kirby Dick), A-listers (Eugene Jarecki) and near-A-listers (Lauren Greenfield). These directors alone have about a dozen previous Sundance award nominations or wins amongst them.

This is not a criticism of the selection, although it may rile up some documentary filmmakers who haven’t had similar previous success, and were not picked. I just think it’s interesting that Sundance, independent film and documentaries have evolved to a point where Sundance programmers are featuring truly anonymous directors in the dramatic category, while they are willing to allow more doc directors with clout (a contradiction of terms, perhaps) into the competition. This very well might not be intentional; maybe it’s just the crop of films submitted this year. What do you think?

Here’s the list of Sundance documentaries (all descriptions provided by Sundance):

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry / United States, China (Director: Alison Klayman) — Renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has garnered international attention as much for his ambitious artwork as his political provocations and increasingly public clashes with the Chinese government.

The Atomic States of America / United States (Directors: Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce) — In 2010, the United States announced construction of the first new nuclear power plant in more than 32 years. A year later, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan sparking a fierce debate in the U.S. over the safety and viability of nuclear power.

Chasing Ice / United States (Director: Jeff Orlowski) — Science, spectacle and human passion mix in this stunningly cinematic portrait as National Geographic photographer James Balog captures time-lapse photography of glaciers over several years providing tangible visual evidence of climate change.

DETROPIA / United States (Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady) — The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. This is the dramatic story of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising.

ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare / United States (Directors: Matthew Heineman, Susan Froemke) — What can be done to save our broken medical system? Powerful forces are trying to maintain the status quo in a profit-driven medical industry, but a movement to bring innovative methods of prevention and healing is finally gaining ground – potentially saving the health of a nation.

Finding North / United States (Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush) — A crisis of hunger looms in America and is not limited to the poverty stricken and uneducated. Can a return to policies of the 1970s save our future?

The House I Live In / United States (Director: Eugene Jarecki) — For over 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet, drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. Where did we go wrong and what is the path toward healing?

How to Survive a Plague / United States (Director: David France) — The untold story of the intensive efforts that turned AIDS into a manageable condition – and the improbable group of (mostly HIV-positive) young men and women whose amazing resilience broke through a time of rampant death and political indifference.

The Invisible War / United States (Director: Kirby Dick) — An investigative and powerfully emotional examination of the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the U.S. military, the institutions that cover up its existence and the profound personal and social consequences that arise from it.

Marina Abramović The Artist is Present / United States (Director: Matthew Akers) — Marina Abramović prepares for a major retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York hoping to finally silence four decades of skeptics who proclaim: ‘But why is this art?’

ME at the ZOO / United States (Directors: Chris Moukarbel, Valerie Veatch) — With 270 million hits to date, Chris Crocker, an uncanny young video blogger from small town Tennessee, is considered the Internet’s first rebel folk hero and at the same time one of its most controversial personalities.

The Other Dream Team / Lithuania, United States (Director: Marius Markevicius) — The 1992 Lithuanian National Basketball Team went from the clutches of Communism to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona – a testament to the powerful role of sports as a catalyst for cultural identity.

The Queen of Versailles / United States (Director: Lauren Greenfield) — Jackie and David were triumphantly constructing the biggest house in America — a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot palace inspired by Versailles — when their timeshare empire falters due to the economic crisis. Their rags-to-riches-to-rags story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream.

Slavery By Another Name / United States (Director: Sam Pollard) — As slavery came to an end with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a new system of involuntary servitude took its place with shocking force, brutalizing, terrorizing and ultimately circumscribing the lives of hundreds of thousands of African Americans well into the 20th century.

Love Free or Die / United States (Director: Macky Alston) — One man whose two defining passions are in conflict: An openly gay bishop refuses to leave the Church or the man he loves.

We’re Not Broke / United States (Directors: Karin Hayes, Victoria Bruce) — As American lawmakers slash budgets and lay off employees, leaving many people scrambling to survive, multibillion-dollar corporations are concealing colossal profits overseas to avoid paying U.S. income tax. Fed-up Americans are taking their frustration to the streets.

DOCUMENTARY PREMIERES

About Face / United States (Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders) — An exploration of beauty and aging through the stories of the original supermodels. Participants including Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Paulina Porizkova, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington weigh in on the fashion industry and how they reassess and redefine their own sense of beauty as their careers progress.

BONES BRIGADE: An Autobiography / United States (Director: Stacy Peralta) — When six teenage boys came together as a skateboarding team in the 1980s, they reinvented not only their chosen sport but themselves too – as they evolved from insecure outsiders to the most influential athletes in the field.

The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia / United States (Director: James Redford) — While following a Dyslexic high school senior struggling to achieve his dream of getting into a competitive college, The D Word exposes myths about Dyslexia and reveals cutting edge research to elucidate this widely misunderstood condition.

ETHEL / United States (Director: Rory Kennedy) — This intimate, surprising portrait of Ethel Kennedy provides an insider’s view of a political dynasty, including Ethel’s life with Robert F. Kennedy and the years following his death when she raised their eleven children on her own.

A Fierce Green Fire

A Fierce Green Fire

A Fierce Green Fire / United States (Director: Mark Kitchell) — A definitive history of one of the most important movements of the 20th century, A Fierce Green Fire chronicles the environmental movement’s fascinating evolution from the 1960s to the present.

SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE ART OF RAP / United Kingdom (Director: Ice-T, Co-Director: Andy Baybutt) — Through conversations with Rap’s most influential artists — among them Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, MC Lyte, Mos Def, and Kanye West — Ice-T explores the roots and history of Rap and reveals the creative process behind this now dominant art form.

Untitled Paul Simon Project / United States (Director: Joe Berlinger) — Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end Apartheid.

West of Memphis / United States (Director: Amy Berg) — Three teenage boys are incarcerated for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. 19 years later, new evidence calls into question the convictions and raises issues of judicial, prosecutorial and jury misconduct — showing that the first casualty of a corrupt justice system is the truth.

Park City at Midnight:

SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS / United Kingdom (Directors: Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace) — A documentary that follows LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy over a crucial 48-hour period, from the day of their final gig at Madison Square Garden to the morning after, the official end of one of the best live bands in the world.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki