2014 Sundance Documentary Competitions showcase Nick Cave, Internet paranoia and more
Earlier this week, the 15 film Oscars Documentary shortlist was announced.
If you were at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, you might have caught the majority of the films on that list, including “Blackfish,” “The Crash Reel,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Dirty Wars,” “God Loves Uganda,” “Life According to Sam,” “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” “The Square,” “Stories We Tell,” “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.”
And the 2013 Sundance documentary slate also included a slew of acclaimed films that [for one reason or another] didn’t make the Oscars shortlist, including “Inequality For All,” “American Promise,” “Wikileaks,” “After Tiller” and the Festival’s big doc hit “Blood Brother.”
In short, if you’re a fan of mainstream documentaries, it’s still hard to beat Sundance when it comes to catching world and American premieres for top notch documentaries.
On Wednesday (December 4), Sundance announced the competition slates for the the World and US Documentary Competition at the 2014 Festival, which will run from January 16-26 in Park City.
Since I end up providing the bulk of HitFix’s documentary coverage from Sundance, the docs end up being the first category I look at, while our movie gang’s got your look at the Narrative Competition films.
The Festival opens on January 16 with premieres from each of the four competition categories. On the U.S. Documentary side, the opener will be Todd Miller’s “Dinosaur 13,” which the Festival says is “the true tale behind one of the greatest documentaries in history.” On the World Doc side, things will open with Nadav Schirman’s “The Green Prince,” about the relationship between a spy and his handler within the Israeli intelligence complex.
It’s always tempting to look at the Sundance doc slates and try to pick out the major trends for any particular year, but this year’s subject matter seems to run an astoundingly wide gauntlet.
There are Internet cautionary tales. Sosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s World Doc entry “Web Junkie” is an Israeli-produced look at a Chinese rehab facility for young cyber addicts, while Brian Knappenberger’s “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” looks at the late cyber-activist Aaron Schwartz. There’s also Valerie Veatch’s “Love Child,” about a South Korean couple whose infant daughter died while they were caught up in an online fantasy game.
There are the usual broad-topic issue-oriented docs: Stephanie Soechtig’s “Fed Up” looks at the government and food industry complicity in America obesity, Michael Rossato-Bennett’s “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory” looks at Alzheimer’s and Hubert Sauper’s “We Come as Friends” looks at colonization and Ben Cotner & Ryan White eye gay marriage in “The Case Against 8.” And if you’re looking for this year’s heir to the “Inequality For All”/ “An Inconvenient Truth”/ “Waiting For Superman” Problem Drama throne, I’m already eying “Page One” director Andrew Rossi’s “Ivory Tower” about student debt and the crisis of private university education.
There are an assortment of bio-docs on variably famous and infamous subjects, a category that could include “Internet’s Own Boy” and Jeremiah Zagar’s “CAPTIVATED The Trials of Pamela Smart,” but definitely would feature Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee’s “Cedar’s Last Fast” about Cesar Chavez, Jeffrey Radice’s “No No: A Dockumentary,” the latest look at LSD-dropping pitcher Dock Ellis, Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard’s format-bending “20,000 Days on Earth” about Nick Cave,” Tessa Louise-Salome’s look at the director of “Holy Motors” in “Mr leos caraX,” Chelsea McMullan’s chronicle of transgendered Canadian singer Rae Spoon and Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s “The Notorious Mr. Bout” about Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout.
And, of course, there are several multi-person looks at individual subjects including Cynthia Hill’s “Private Violence,” Edet Belzerg’s “Watchers of the Sky” and Katy Chevigny & Ross Kauffman’s “E-TEAM.”
Plus, you’ll get an Iranian woman who wants to be an astronaut in “Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars,” an eight-year-old monk exposed to TV for the first time in “Happiness” and looks at gold-mining in Colombia and oil rigging in North Dakota.
You can now go through the documentary slates and pick out your own trends.
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Sixteen world-premiere American documentaries that illuminate the ideas, people, and events that shape the present day.
Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory / U.S.A. (Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett) – Five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia-many of them alone in nursing homes. A man with a simple idea discovers that songs embedded deep in memory can ease pain and awaken these fading minds. Joy and life are resuscitated, and our cultural fears over aging are confronted.
All the Beautiful Things / U.S.A. (Director: John Harkrider) – John and Barron are lifelong friends whose friendship is tested when Barron’s girlfriend says Barron put a knife to her throat and raped her. Not knowing she has lied, John tells her to go to the police. Years later, John and Barron meet in a bar to resolve the betrayal.
CAPTIVATED The Trials of Pamela Smart / U.S.A., United Kingdom (Director: Jeremiah Zagar) – In an extraordinary and tragic American story, a small town murder becomes one of the highest profile cases of all time. From its historic role as the first televised trial to the many books and movies made about it, the film looks at the media”s enduring impact on the case.
The Case Against 8 / U.S.A. (Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White) – A behind-the-scenes look inside the case to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Shot over five years, the film follows the unlikely team that took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cesar’s Last Fast / U.S.A. (Directors: Richard Ray Perez, Lorena Parlee) – Inspired by Catholic social teaching, Cesar Chavez risked his life fighting for America”s poorest workers. The film illuminates the intensity of one man”s devotion and personal sacrifice, the birth of an economic justice movement, and tells an untold chapter in the story of civil rights in America.
Dinosaur 13 / U.S.A. (Director: Todd Miller) – The true tale behind one of the greatest discoveries in history. DAY ONE FILM
E-TEAM / U.S.A. (Directors: Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman) – E-TEAM is driven by the high-stakes investigative work of four intrepid human rights workers, offering a rare look at their lives at home and their dramatic work in the field.
Fed Up / U.S.A. (Director: Stephanie Soechtig) – Fed Up blows the lid off everything we thought we knew about food and weight loss, revealing a 30-year campaign by the food industry, aided by the U.S. government, to mislead and confuse the American public, resulting in one of the largest health epidemics in history.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz / U.S.A. (Director: Brian Knappenberger) – Programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz achieved groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing. His passion for open access ensnared him in a legal nightmare that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26.
Ivory Tower / U.S.A. (Director: Andrew Rossi) – As tuition spirals upward and student debt passes a trillion dollars, students and parents ask, “Is college worth it?” From the halls of Harvard to public and private colleges in financial crisis to education startups in Silicon Valley, an urgent portrait emerges of a great American institution at the breaking point.
Marmato / U.S.A. (Director: Mark Grieco) – Colombia is the center of a new global gold rush, and Marmato, a historic mining town, is the new frontier. Filmed over the course of nearly six years, Marmato chronicles how townspeople confront a Canadian mining company that wants the $20 billion in gold beneath their homes.
No No: A Dockumentary / U.S.A. (Director: Jeffrey Radice) – Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD, then worked for decades counseling drug abusers. Dock’s soulful style defined 1970s baseball as he kept hitters honest and embarrassed the establishment. An ensemble cast of teammates, friends, and family investigate his life on the field, in the media, and out of the spotlight.
The Overnighters / U.S.A. (Director: Jesse Moss) – Desperate, broken men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor’s decision to help them has extraordinary and unexpected consequences.
Private Violence / U.S.A. (Director: Cynthia Hill) – One in four women experience violence in their homes. Have you ever asked, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Private Violence shatters the brutality of our logic and intimately reveals the stories of two women: Deanna Walters, who transforms from victim to survivor, and Kit Gruelle, who advocates for justice.
Rich Hill / U.S.A. (Directors: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) – In a rural, American town, kids face heartbreaking choices, find comfort in the most fragile of family bonds, and dream of a future of possibility.
Watchers of the Sky / U.S.A. (Director: Edet Belzberg) – Five interwoven stories of remarkable courage from Nuremberg to Rwanda, from Darfur to Syria, and from apathy to action.
[Click to Page 2 for the World Documentary Competition slate…]
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Twelve documentaries by some of the most courageous and extraordinary international filmmakers working today.
20,000 Days On Earth / United Kingdom (Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) – Drama and reality combine in a fictitious 24 hours in the life of musician and international culture icon Nick Cave. With startlingly frank insights and an intimate portrayal of the artistic process, this film examines what makes us who we are and celebrates the transformative power of the creative spirit. World Premiere
Concerning Violence / Sweden, U.S.A., Denmark, Finland (Director: Göran Hugo Olsson) – Concerning Violence is based on newly discovered, powerful archival material documenting the most daring moments in the struggle for liberation in the Third World, accompanied by classic text from The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. World Premiere
The Green Prince / Germany, Israel, United Kingdom (Director: Nadav Schirman ) – This real-life thriller tells the story of one of Israel”s prized intelligence sources, recruited to spy on his own people for more than a decade. Focusing on the complex relationship with his handler, The Green Prince is a gripping account of terror, betrayal, and unthinkable choices, along with a friendship that defies all boundaries. World Premiere. DAY ONE FILM
Happiness / France, Finland (Director: Thomas Balmès) – Peyangki is a dreamy and solitary eight-year-old monk living in Laya, a Bhutanese village perched high in the Himalayas. Soon the world will come to him: the village is about to be connected to electricity, and the first television will flicker on before Peyangki’s eyes. North American Premiere
Love Child / South Korea, U.S.A. (Director: Valerie Veatch) – In Seoul in the Republic of Korea, a young couple stands accused of neglect when “Internet addiction” in an online fantasy game costs the life of their infant daughter. Love Child documents the 2010 trial and subsequent ruling that set a global precedent in a world where virtual is the new reality. World Premiere
Mr leos caraX / France (Director: Tessa Louise-Salomé) – Mr leos caraX plunges us into the poetic and visionary world of a mysterious, solitary filmmaker who was already a cult figure from his very first film. Punctuated by interviews and previously unseen footage, this documentary is most of all a fine-tuned exploration of the poetic and visionary world of Leos Carax, alias Mr. X. World Premiere
My Prairie Home / Canada (Director: Chelsea McMullan) – A poetic journey through landscapes both real and emotional, Chelsea McMullan”s documentary/musical offers an intimate portrait of transgender singer Rae Spoon, framed by stunning images of the Canadian prairies. McMullan”s imaginative visual interpretations of Spoon”s songs make this an unforgettable look at a unique Canadian artist. International Premiere
The Notorious Mr. Bout / U.S.A., Russia (Directors: Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin ) – Viktor Bout was a war profiteer, an entrepreneur, an aviation tycoon, an arms dealer, and-strangest of all-a documentary filmmaker. The Notorious Mr. Bout is the ultimate rags-to-riches-to-prison memoir, documented by the last man you’d expect to be holding the camera. World Premiere
The Return to Homs / Syria, Germany (Director: Talal Derki) – Basset Sarout, the 19-year-old national football team goalkeeper, becomes a demonstration leader and singer, and then a fighter. Ossama, a 24-year-old renowned citizen cameraman, is critical, a pacifist, and ironic until he is detained by the regime’s security forces. North American Premiere
SEPIDEH – Reaching for the Stars / Denmark (Director: Berit Madsen) – Sepideh wants to become an astronaut. As a young Iranian woman, she knows it”s dangerous to challenge traditions and expectations. Still, Sepideh holds on to her dream. She knows a tough battle is ahead, a battle that only seems possible to win once she seeks help from an unexpected someone. North American Premiere
We Come as Friends / France, Austria (Director: Hubert Sauper) – We Come as Friends views colonization as a human phenomenon through both explicit and metaphoric lenses without oversimplified accusations or political theorizing. Alarmingly, It is not a historical film since colonization and the slave trade still exist. World Premiere
Web Junkie / Israel (Directors: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia) – China is the first country to label “Internet addiction” a clinical disorder. Web Junkie investigates a Beijing rehab center where Chinese teenagers are deprogrammed. World Premiere
If you made it there far… Any topical standouts for you?