Documentaries have always been a Sundance strong suit and 2016 was no exception. Among these is one focusing on the work of Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater. Indeed I’m flying today to his home base of Austin for the South By Southwest Festival where his latest feature will premiere in a couple of days.
Here then are the dozen world premieres that most impressed, bearing in mind that I wasn’t able to see all of the prize winners.
Master filmmaker Werner Herzog turns his attention to the impact of the online world on human civilization, acutely observing its possibilities and pitfalls. Divided into 10 chapters, this often probing philosophical journey starts in a university laboratory in 1969 when computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock was present at the creation of the Internet. As we contemplate the enormous traffic of today’s world wide web and the futurist prospects of artificial intelligence, that first communication between computers seems positively prehistoric. But are we becoming smarter as a result? Ever the humanist, Herzog is the perfect guide to a critical appreciation of where this technological revolution is taking us.
This engaging story of a young Afghan refugee in Tehran took both the world cinema grand jury and audience awards. Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami introduces us to teenager Sonita Alizadeh (http://www.wmm.com/sonita/) who is living a precarious existence, without any identity documents, in a Tehran shelter for working and street children. Her conservative mother who lives in Afghanistan comes to fetch her back for a traditional arranged marriage with a “bride price” that will allow an older brother to get married. Sonita, an aspiring rap artist with a vibrant personality, is having none of that. Somehow she manages to get a birth certificate, to record videos (one, “Daughters for Sale,” was posted to YouTube), and to get to the U.S. where she is currently studying at a Utah academy.
The U.S. documentary grand jury award went to this fascinating account of the driving passion and downfall of disgraced former New York City Congressman and 2013 mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, an activist liberal Democrat whose wife, Huma Abedin, was a top adviser to Hillary Clinton (raising inevitable comparisons to Hillary standing by Bill). The Weiner scandal first erupted in 2011 when explicit photos he sent to other women using his Twitter account became public. Within months he was forced to resign. A second “sexting” scandal torpedoed his campaign for mayor. Terrifically paced, with extraordinary behind-the-scenes access to key moments, Weiner exposes a cautionary episode in American politics.
By any measure, the late James Foley was an exceptional person. Growing up in a large Catholic family in New Hampshire, he became an accomplished journalist in the world’s worst conflict zones, including Syria where he was abducted with several others near the Turkish border in November 2012. His fate came to worldwide attention in August 2014 when the terrorist Islamic State released the grisly video of his execution. Recipient of the U.S. documentary audience award, and picked up for broadcast by HBO, the film, directed by childhood friend Brian Oakes, looks back at what made Jim and his contributions so special in the eyes of family, fellow journalists and those imprisoned with him. Although Jim converted to Islam, desperate efforts to obtain his release failed (perhaps because he was American with a brother who had served in Iraq). He retained his courage, dignity and composure to the very end.
With the support of HBO Documentary Films, banjo-playing activist director Josh Fox (Gasland, Gasland Part II) embarks on a rousing personal odyssey that takes him to 12 countries on six continents, both observing the frontlines of climate change impacts and bearing witness to the sites of resistance to the forces of environmental destruction. While the problems can seem overwhelming, the film radiates positive energy. The hope is that the climate crisis can also provoke catharsis and a transformational shift toward renewable energy solutions — solutions that challenge systems of corporate power, that are democratically determined and that empower people at the grassroots level. To that end the Sundance premiere was the kickoff of a crowd-funded “Love and Let Go Tour” that aims to bring the film to free community screenings in 100 cities. More information at: http://www.howtoletgomovie.com/
One of the contested sites visited by Josh Fox was Peru’s Amazonian rainforest where the rights of indigenous people, supposedly constitutionally guaranteed, have been violated by government laws and concessions to corporate interests seeking to exploit the region’s petroleum potential. Directed by Heidi Brandenburg and Matthew Orzel, winner of a special jury prize, this film probes the tragic consequences of actions taken by the government of President Alan Garcia in the wake of the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement leading to deadly clashes between police and protesters. Much of the focus is on indigenous leader Alberto Pizango who is made a scapegoat and forced into exile, finding asylum in Nicaragua. He has returned to face prosecution. Meanwhile the exploitation of the Amazon continues despite the repeal of some offensive laws.
New York-based director Shimon Dotan offers a truly eye-opening and comprehensive examination of the Israeli settler phenomenon that has expanded enormously since Israel occupied large Arab territories during the 1967 Six Day War. The main focus is on the West Bank where, in defiance of international law, there are now more than 200 settlements and outposts home to over 400,000 Jewish settlers who enjoy greater rights and access to services than the Palestinian population. Most alarming are the messianic attitudes many settlers — some openly racist — who feel divinely entitled to lands “from the Nile to the Euphrates,” knowing full well such biblical manifest destiny dooms any possibility of peace.
Although programmed under “Sundance Kids,” this film by Otto Bell (http://theeaglehuntress.com/site/), shot in the mountainous wilds of northwest Mongolia in winter, will enthrall viewers of any age. The “huntress” of the title is 13-year-old Ashol-Pan who, supported by her master-hunter father Agalai, breaks the gender barrier in the male-dominated 2,000-year tradition of hunting (foxes and small game) with trained golden eagles. Tradition also dictates that the eagles be set free after seven years of service. Bell captures some amazing scenes close up: of Ashol-Pan getting an eaglet from a nest, training it, winning an eagle festival contest in 2014 and going on her first winter hunt in 2015. It’s a winning combination of girl power and real-life adventure in a remote landscape.
Combining ancient Afghan mythology with the grim realism of war-ravaged modern Afghanistan, Belgian writer-director Pieter-Jan De Pue spent years observing the fate of children in the rugged northeastern region. Children scavenge the remains of Soviet landmines which they sell as explosives to child workers in a lapis lazuli mine. Child gangs from the Kuchi tribe mounted on horseback waylay caravans smuggling opium across awe-inspiring landscapes (the cinematography received a special jury award). As striking to the viewer is that against this savage backdrop the western soldiers who are just visiting might as well be from another planet.
In a sign of the times, people and bags were subject to search at all event entrances, with signs warning that firearms were not permitted inside. Police were stationed at some venues. Indeed gun violence and mass shootings were the subject of four films. Kim Snyder’s Newtown explores the aftermath on this normally quiet Connecticut town of the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six staff in the Sandy Hook school, the impact on the families and first responders, and the efforts of those most affected to remember the victims and to learn lessons from the tragedy. More overtly message-driven is Stephanie Soechtig’s Under the Gun, which marshals a mountain of data to underline the extent of the problem and why even the Sandy Hook massacre has not slowed the trend to expand, not restrict gun ownership rights. Gun stores have proliferated and on an average day 297 Americans will be shot of whom 89 will die. Anti-gun activists face a tough road, even death threats, in the case of a Chicago Catholic priest who is profiled.
Director Liz Garbus, whose 2015 Sundance entry What Happened Miss Simone? earned an Oscar nomination, was back with this absorbing and affectionate look at the remarkable mother-son relationship between the famous heiress and colourful socialite — the original “poor little rich girl” — and the silver-haired CNN host and television personality who has covered frontline stories at home and abroad. They have shared deep sorrows, notably the suicide of Anderson’s older brother Carter. In this candid portrait they also share an abiding empathy and resilience, an understanding of the human condition deepened by their experience of dealing with loss.
Austin-based filmmaker Linklater (Boyhood) is the most original talent of his generation and I’m eagerly anticipating his latest feature, Everybody Wants Some, which will open that city’s South By Southwest Festival. Austin co-directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein (http://linklaterdoc.com/) have fashioned an engrossing look at Linklater’s fiercely independent career to date from growing up in a Catholic family with ambitions to be a baseball player or novelist to a uniquely varied filmography that has hit both highs and lows. Linklater, whose breakout feature Slacker played Sundance in 1991, was back at the festival providing a running commentary with Jason Reitman to a special screening of his first major success Dazed and Confused (1993). One senses the best is yet to come.