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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Top documentaries from the Sundance Film Festival



Gerald SchmitzNot only was Sundance blessed by a range of strong documentaries, it featured several excellent panels on documentary filmmaking. In one on Bringing Truths to Light, directors Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and Marc Silver (3 and 1/2 Minutes) discussed how investigative journalism can have impact through the art of visual storytelling. Filmmakers too need free-speech protections to be able to tell these stories. To get to the deeper level of often complex truths, much more is involved than simply conveying factual information. It requires both an empathetic understanding that can move audiences and a critical independence that avoids manipulation.

A New Frontier panel, The Future of Documentaries, which included a National Film Board spokesperson from its Vancouver digital interactive studio, explored the exciting experimentation that is taking place using new social media and even “virtual reality” techniques to deliver documentary experiences across multiple platforms. However these innovative forms may evolve, what remains central is a commitment to good storytelling that engages and motivates.

Beyond Going Clear and 3 and 1/2 Minutes, Sundance premieres I wasn’t able to see (but which will be broadcast on HBO), here are the docs that most impressed.

Racing Extinction (U.S.)

I saw this as a work-in-progress at Tribeca last April when it was called “6,” referring to a sixth planetary mass extinction attributable for the first time to human causes. It’s been honed into an even more powerfully urgent call for transformative action to preserve threatened species and ecosystems. The wealth of analysis combined with breathtaking and disturbing images put together by Oscar winner Louie Psihoyos and his intrepid team should convince even hardened skeptics of the necessity for change. The good news is that the film will be broadcast on the Discovery Channel worldwide later this year. More in a subsequent column.

Meru (U.S.)

Winner of the audience award, this may be the ultimate mountain-climbing adventure. After an earlier failure, defying death and seemingly impossible odds, a three-man team led by Conrad Anker, including co-director Jimmy Chin, became the first to reach the summit of Himalayan Mount Meru in 2011. There’s much more to the story than how they conquered the world’s toughest peak, and the cinematography by Chin and third member Renan Ozturk is out of this world.

Welcome to Leith (U.S.)

You could not make up this incredible ongoing true story of how in 2012 a rabid white supremacist and neo-Nazi named Craig Cobb moved to the tiny village of Leith, North Dakota, and recruited others to try to take over control, setting up an increasingly chilling struggle with the area’s longtime residents. The filmmakers brilliantly capture the human as well as legal-political consequences of what’s at stake. On probation after convictions for terrorizing his neighbours, Cobb is currently living closer to the Canadian border.

T(error) (U.S.)

Directors Lyric Cabral and Felix Sutcliffe earned a special jury award (Breakout First Feature) for this unprecedented exposé of how the FBI before, and especially after, 9/11 has used domestic informants (often vulnerable individuals facing criminal charges) to infiltrate suspected terrorist networks or set up sting operations to trap suspected “terrorists.” Specifically they follow the decades-long undercover career of one secret informant, a former black-power revolutionary. As western states seek new counterterrorism surveillance powers, this is a timely reminder of the abuses that can arise from the criminalization of free speech.

How to Change the World (Canada/U.K.)

Winner of a jury editing award, director Jerry Rothwell’s penetrating account of the genesis of Greenpeace captures its remarkable evolution from an early ’70s ragtag Vancouver anti-nuclear protest group into a huge global activist movement. Profiling the group’s colourful key figures through archival footage and interviews, the film shows both the promise and perils of radical activism — the passions driving the burgeoning organization’s controversial campaigns and the deep splits that emerged among the founders. As one says: “The weakest link was always going to be ourselves.”

Prophet’s Prey (U.S.)

Drawing on the eponymous book by Sam Brower, director Amy Berg delves into the truly shocking story of how megalomaniac sexual predator Warren Jeffs became the tyrannical leader of a polygamous breakaway Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). With more than 90 wives (only two of which have escaped his clutches), even after his 2006 arrest — he was on the FBI’s “10 most wanted list” — and later conviction for child sexual assault, Jeffs continues to exert influence from a Texas prison cell.

Listen to Me Marlon (U.K.)

Writer-director Stevan Riley has fashioned a fascinating portrait of Marlon Brando, the acting world’s most famous and idiosyncratic practitioner of the “Method,” requiring total immersion in the character of each role to convey its truth. The narration is entirely drawn from Brando’s own words, many heard for the first time from the private archive of audio tapes he recorded, offering revealing insights into a complex difficult life and extraordinary career that rebelled at “the illusion of success.”

The Amina Profile (Canada)

Director Sophie Deraspe tells the astonishing story of what happened when Jewish Montrealer Sandra Bagaria pursued an online flirtation with a Syrian, “Amina Arraf,” blogging under the provocative title A Gay Girl in Damascus. From 2011 “Amina” became a sensation in the context of the Syrian civil war, reportedly abducted by regime forces until “her” Internet persona was exposed as belonging to a bearded American academic and failed novelist. It’s a bizarre cautionary episode alongside Syria’s worsening agony.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (U.S.)

Available on Netflix since its Sundance premiere, director Liz Garbus vividly recalls the exceptional life story of jazz-soul singer Nina Simone, a classically trained pianist who battled racism, domestic abuse, depressions and self-chosen exiles. Simone marched with Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965 but later advocated violent revolution. Set against America’s ongoing racial malaise her story still resonates.

Best of Enemies (U.S.)

Remember when network television news still mattered? Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon recreate the electric atmosphere of the 1968 presidential campaign when ABC, in a quest for ratings, engaged antagonistic icons of right and left — conservative National Review editor William Buckley and leftist iconoclast novelist Gore Vidal — in a series of rancorous debates that became the intellectual equivalent of ultimate fighting. In reaching a broad mainstream audience, that memorable crossfire bears little comparison to today’s increasingly narrowcast ideological echo chambers.

The Wolfpack (U.S.)

A perhaps surprising winner of the grand jury prize, director Crystal Moselle follows the very weird confines of the Angulo family of eight living in a New York lower east side housing project. The domineering unemployed father is the only one with a key to the front door. Six long-haired “wolfpack” brothers, who amuse themselves by re-enacting scenes from favourite movies, have grown up completely isolated from the outside world, although that control gets upset when the oldest escapes. (Find out more at:

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Romania/Germany/U.K.)

Before 1989 Romania’s Ceausescu dictatorship deprived its subjects of anything from the West. But an enterprising individual took the risk of smuggling VHS tapes of Hollywood movies into the country and arranging clandestine screenings in people’s homes. As director Ilinca Calugareanu recounts the surreal state of affairs, these tapes were dubbed in Romanian by Irina Nistor whose day job was working for state television — in effect, literally under the noses of the secret police as the regime rotted from within.

In addition, mention must be made of the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge, presented in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an inspiring program “designed to spark global conversation highlighting human ingenuity and imaginative solutions real people are creating to overcome challenges like extreme poverty and hunger.” The nine shorts, which premiered at the festival, selected from 1,387 submissions from 69 countries, can be viewed for free online worldwide at:


On Friday, March 20, 2015, at 7:00 p.m., Gerald Schmitz will discuss "When the movies go to war." The event will be held at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Fr. O'Donnell Auditorium.