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Sundance 2014: Five Major Documentary Takeaways

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Göran Hugo Olsson's Concerning Violence

Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence

The Sundance Film Festival is coming to a close this weekend, but it has already entered its sleepy, slow-down phase, so it’s time to see what we can glean from it. Those of us who didn’t attend may have had less fun, but we have the distinct advantage of not having drunk the Kool-Aid at such high altitudes. So what’s coming is a sober perspective.

From what I hear, I’m looking forward to Fed Up, about the dirty underbelly of American food industry, and Love Child, about a Korean couple addicted to online gaming, and who let their child starve to death. Also; Mitt, a very inside-baseball look at Mitt Romney. And, speaking of the great game, there are two baseball docs that sound fun; Battered Bastards of Baseball, about a wacky 70s renegade baseball league in Oregon and No No: A Dockumentary, the story of pitcher Dock Ellis, who threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.

And, here are my five big takeaways from Sundance, from afar:

THE BIG SALE
This year, there was only one big sale of a documentary; Lionsgate and CNN Films paid a reported $1 million for Dinosaur 13, about the discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton and the legal fight that ensued. Last year, there was a double-doc whammy; $1 million-plus purchases for 20 Feet from Stardom and Blackfish, each. (A rare instance when the high sales were proven to be justified by great box office.) The word on Dinosaur 13 was good enough, but I can’t help thinking of the 2007 science doc, In the Shadow of the Moon, which also got a big buy and good reviews, but disappeared into the stratosphere. That Lionsgate, more accustomed to selling far-fetched thrills and gore than archaeology (who is?) and real reality, is handling its theatrical, should prove interesting (which is to say, they may over or undersell it).

THE UNEXPECTED GEM
I like the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It speaks to me, because I often make the same mistake twice. A few years back, when I heard about Göran Hugo Olsson‘s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, it just sounded weird that a Swedish guy would make an archival film about the decades-old Black Power movement in the United States. I scoffed at the notion, but it turned out to be a beautifully shot, and well-crafted narrative, with a propulsive sound mix. And yet, this second time around, I was disinterested when I first heard about Olsson’s latest, Concerning Violence, which premiered at Sundance. Olsson again uses only archival footage, this time to tell of the battle against colonization in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. The word I’m hearing is that it’s brilliant. I’m thinking it could be the The Act of Killing of 2014. I can’t wait to see it.

THE MUST SEE
Unlike the Swede diving into archival tape, all eyes were on director Amir Bar-Lev, who has taken on the tragic and high-profile story of Penn State University, the sexual abuses of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the cover-up, and the legacy of Joe Paterno, in Happy Valley. Bar-Lev has access to Sandusky’s son, one of the abused, as well as the Paterno family, among others. But he reportedly provides more than just a study of those most affected, and creates a portrait of the entire community (the State College area is known as Happy Valley) and the culture of college sports. I know there’s another documentary, currently out, about the same subject, but I want to specifically see Bar-Lev’s take on this. He’s proven with his previous films (My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story) that he understands his way around the grey area between truths and lies. This is a third in a trifecta of films on mythical figures, and I look forward to seeing if he can present to audience a case for what happened, and what is right or wrong about Happy Valley.

THE PRO COMES IN FROM THE COLD
I have seen only one film that played at Sundance, and thank goodness it was a great one: Steve James’ posthumous portrait of Roger Ebert, Life Itself. The film is catnip for all of us in the industry of writing about film, so it’s hard to be objective. But I believe the documentary will transcend the small circle of film geeks. Ebert was, after all, a well-known critic for the people, and this story is very much one that hits all of the conventional high and low points of conventional filmmaking. There are already whispers of Oscar for 2015, which seems crazy considering we haven’t made it through the 2014 Academy Awards, but the film does indeed provide all of the laughs, the tears, and the dirt that you’d hope for from a biopic of a larger-than-life character. It’s particularly heartening to see what a fine job James has done—he’s always done the right thing, hitting the streets hard with vérité docs (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters); It’s ironic that he may have taken his career to a new level by staying indoors, near the popcorn machine, this time.

THE NEW DOC DISTRIBUTION TESTAMENT
Maybe the best Sundance documentary take-away wasn’t a movie, person, place or thing that happened at the festival, but a document pieced together by Thom Powers, before it even began. Powers is head of the Stranger than Fiction program and curator of docs at the Toronto Film Festival, among other doc duties at various institutions. As a run-up to Sundance, Powers issued forth an all-inclusive guide for documentary distribution, as told by doc filmmakers (including Alex Gibney, Lucy Walker, Marshall Curry and Heidi Ewing) and doc distribution aficionados, such as Peter Broderick. How to approach a festival, whom to turn to, what to prioritize, are all meted out. This is the kind of thing people could pay hundreds of dollars for at a workshop, but it’s here for free, and worth its weight in a stack of DSLRs.

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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