Sundance Film Festival, that great champion of documentaries, begins today. To honor this gathering and launching pad for yet another strong selection of non-fiction filmmaking, I asked two Senior Programmers of the festival, David Courier and Caroline Libresco, a few questions.
We’ll start with David. He indicates that, between a documentary by the rockin’ Dave Grohl (former drummer of Nirvana and lead singer of Foo Fighters; now director of Sound City) and an international tear-jerker (Blood Brother), an emotional roller coaster ride awaits attendees of the fest.
Could you describe the standards you use to select the docs?
We pick the best films that we get. It’s as simple as that. Quality is the one and only criterion for consideration. We never set out to program films on any given topic. We are open to films about any subject and films made in any style imaginable. We welcome innovation. We’re looking for films that blow us away.
How is this year’s crop of docs different from previous years?
This year’s crop is really extraordinary. We’re incredibly lucky to get the best documentaries being made. Sundance has always put documentaries on a par with fiction films. Documentary filmmakers are well aware of that and they have rewarded us with an abundance of riches. This year like so many years in the past we had to let go of so many documentaries that we love because we just don’t have enough slots to show them all. We could program an entire other festival with films we love that didn’t get in to Sundance. So, if a doc is in our festival, you know that we love it.
Were there any surprises?
Narco Cultura, about the culture of drug traffickers in Mexico, was a complete surprise for me. It brings you into a world that I had no idea existed. This is a film that will be talked about after the festival. The filmmaker, Shaul Schwarz, is known more as a photographer. He’ll definitely be known as a filmmaker as well after this film premieres. Another surprise was Blood Brother, directed by Steve Hoover. It’s an incredibly moving and inspiring debut feature, about a young American man who moves to India where he works with kids in need, that we knew nothing about before it was submitted to us. If anyone doubts that their film could ever get into Sundance without any connections, they should think again. This film just rose up among the thousands of submissions. The cream really does rise to the top.
One of the biggest surprises was Sound City, about the fabled Los Angeles recording studio. Of course it’s no surprise that Dave Grohl is an amazing musician. The surprise here is that he made an exceptional documentary. We knew the music in the film was going to be good but we were definitely surprised that Dave Grohl turned out to be a really terrific storyteller as well.
Can you give me one anecdote, some backstory, about a filmmaker who’s coming to Sundance this year, that really moves you?
I guess that would have to be Steve Hoover who directed Blood Brother. He went to India to make a film about his best friend, Rocky. Audiences should be prepared to bring a lot of tissues to this film. There most likely won’t be a dry eye in the house. And the inspirational quality of this film is particularly noteworthy because it’s coming from a team (Steve Hoover and his producer Danny Yourd) who had never made a film before.
Can you give me a sense of what Valentine Road is like–its emotional impact? It sounds like it could be quite moving.
This film is incredibly powerful. Of course, this story has been covered in the news quite a lot but the film goes so much deeper than any investigative news report. The filmmaker Marta Cunningham clearly has a knack for making subjects feel comfortable. The result: the verite footage that she gets is extraordinary. It’s unguarded, disturbing and really powerful. This film also has the potential to be controversial because it draws parallels in the upbringing and backgrounds of the murderer and the murdered and never settles for a simplistic assessment of who the victim is.
Some of the docs, such as Cutie and the Boxer, are getting a fair amount of pre-fest buzz; can you tell me about one of the films that isn’t, a gem that should not be missed?
I’m not sure how much pre-fest buzz each film is getting, so I’m going to mention three gems that should not be missed:
God Loves Uganda directed by Roger Ross Williams in US Documentary Competition
Narco Cultura directed by Shaul Schwarz in US Documentary Competition
A River Changes Course directed by Kalyanee Mam in World Cinema Documentary Competition