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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

Gerald Schmitz


Sundance delivers with timely documentary excellence


How do we get to the truth of what really matters? While the Internet has exponentially increased information flows, it can also be used as an instrument of “post-truth” politics, a convenient channel for spreading disinformation and “fake news.” That’s why serious investigative journalism and documentary films committed to seeking the truth of the matter are more important than ever. Of course there are always selective judgments to be made. A 90-minute film may be edited from thousands of hours of footage, as was the case with the Sundance premiere Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset in History. What is shown may not be the whole truth or the only truth. But the intent of the filmmaker(s) is key: to deliver content that is truthful in contradistinction to propaganda. (A recent article in Film Comment — analyzes the film industry background of President Trump’s far-right “chief strategist” Steve Bannon and his involvement in producing propagandistic pseudo-documentaries.)

The best documentaries put before our eyes verifiable evidence and eyewitness testimonies. They challenge us to a deeper understanding of these realities. It’s not about telling viewers what to think. It’s about making audiences think harder about the subject in question. What we do with that knowledge is up to us.

I’ve already noted several important documentaries in my overview of Sundance festival highlights (PM Feb. 8). Within its “New Climate” program, the most prominent and widely discussed title was An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which follows the global climate activism of former U.S. vice-president Al Gore over the past decade. In addition to underlining the need for collective action to address the accelerating impacts of the climate crisis, it offers an optimistic outlook of the potential to transition to affordable and sustainable renewable energy sources. (Among New Climate films I should also mention one I was not able to see. Chasing Coral, winner of the audience award for U.S. documentary, is a global investigation of the climate impacts on the reefs that are vanishing at an unprecedented rate. I hope to catch it at Austin’s South By Southwest festival later this month.)

Significantly, some of the struggles over major resource extraction and carbon-intensive energy projects involve the traditional territories of indigenous peoples. In that previous column I also highlighted the Canadian-produced television series Rise, the first episodes of which premiered at Sundance focus on North American sites of resistance. I’ll have more to say in a forthcoming feature exploring indigenous perspectives on screen.

Below are other Sundance docs that impressed. The first three are examples of great courage in getting out the stories of ordinary people caught in Syria’s ongoing civil war. They merit further commentary beyond these brief notes, especially in light of the Trump administration’s legally challenged ban on the entry of Syrian refugees to the United States.

Last Men in Aleppo (Denmark/Syria)

Last week I praised the Oscar-nominated short The White Helmets, about the brave frontline humanitarian workers who come to the aid of the casualties of Syria’s civil war. Here directors Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen take incredible risks to capture the experience of several white helmet volunteers in the besieged city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. These are the men without guns whose mission is saving lives amid the chaos of war. We get to know them as they put their own lives on the line. It’s an unforgettable devastating portrait that was awarded the grand jury prize for world cinema documentary.

Cries from Syria (Syria/Czech Republic)

Scheduled for a March broadcast on HBO, this is the most comprehensive and penetrating documentary yet made about the Syrian conflict and its consequences. Director Evgeny Afineevsky’s previous film was the Oscar-nominated Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Cries, which carries a warning about extremely graphic images, especially those of child victims, consists mainly of eyewitness accounts filmed at great peril by Syrians themselves. It is unsparing in showing the atrocities by both Islamist extremists and the Assad regime with the collaboration of outsiders including Putin’s Russia. We see the plight of ordinary Syrians — those forced to flee and those still caught in the unrelenting violence.

City of Ghosts (U.S.)

Director Matthew Heineman earned a 2016 Oscar nomination for Cartel Land, an exposé of U.S.-Mexico cross-border drug trafficking. Here he turns the camera on an even more dangerous territory: that of the part of Syria controlled by the so-called Islamic State, and specifically what has been happening in its proclaimed capital of Raqqa, a city closed to any western media since its takeover in 2014. The focus is on the efforts of the anonymous network of citizen journalists, operating in secret inside and outside Syria under the banner “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” who risk everything to bring the story to the world.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (Canada)

Directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana received a special jury award for “masterful storytelling” for their eye-opening account of the often overlooked role of indigenous people in the evolution of the North American music scene — from the seminal guitar virtuosity of Link Wray to that of superstars like Jimi Hendrix who was proud of his part-Cherokee ancestry. Artists with indigenous roots have made a remarkable contribution to contemporary music history, and some of the “Native Americans” profiled (Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie) are Canadian.

Trophy (U.S.)

Part of the “New Climate” program, directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau explore the lucrative and controversial business of big-game hunting in Africa, a showcase for which is the annual convention of the Safari Club International in Las Vegas. Arguments rage over the ethics of this expensive “sport” and how best to protect endangered wildlife species like lions and rhinos. Among those profiled are a Texan biblical fundamentalist hunter and a wealthy South African conservationist seeking to legalize the sale of rhino horn in order to support his herd.

Icarus (U.S.)

Director Bryan Fogel received a special jury “Orwell award” for his astonishing personal account of how the Russian state system from Putin on down has corrupted its anti-doping program as required by international sports competitions. Fogel’s own relationship with the head of that program, Grigory Rodchenkov, forms a key element in the backstory of what led to the scandal of Russia being banned from the Olympics. It plays like a thriller in which Rodchenkov’s fall from grace, followed by secretive exile in the U.S., is an unfinished chapter of a larger story.

500 Years (U.S.)

Director Pamela Yates looks at Guatemala’s long struggle to come to terms with the systematic oppression of its indigenous Mayan population, though efforts at truth and reconciliation, the trial of former military dictator Rios Montt, and recent popular protests. A particular focus is on the role of strong indigenous women in leading movements of resistance, five of whom came to Sundance for the world premiere.

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman (U.S.)

In this “New Climate” title, directors Susan Froemke and John Hoffman profile American families who are setting an example in their conscientious approach to working the land and sea. These “rugged co-operators” are dedicated to conservation, biodiversity, and protecting wildlife habitats. It pairs well with another title from directors Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell, Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, which delves into the farmer-writer-philosopher’s trenchant critique of industrial agriculture.
(The latter is a revised version of “The Seer” which premiered at the South By Southwest festival in March 2016.)

Dina (U.S.)

Winner of the grand jury award for U.S. documentary, directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini take a direct cinema approach to recording the unusual relationship between two middle-aged adults: Dina Buno, a survivor of attempted murder who suffers from a “smorgasbord” of mental challenges, and Scott Levin, an autistic man who works as a Walmart greeter. The moments captured range from the poignant to the humorous to the chilling. Underlying them is an appeal for the acceptance and understanding of difference though the raw intimacy can make for uncomfortable viewing.

The New Radical (U.S.)

Writer-director Adam Bhala Lough profiles young American and British radical activists who are using digital technologies and the dark recesses of cyberspace to pursue their challenges to established authorities. Prominent among them are libertarian and self-described “total zealot” Cody Wilson, the inventor of a 3D-printable assault weapon, and anarchist Amir Taaki, a Bitcoin promoter and hacker. So far, at least, surveillance by the national security state seems to have spurred rather than deterred this new breed of anti-establishment radical.

Honourable mentions

The Force: Peter Nicks was awarded the U.S. documentary directing award for this powerfully instructive look at the struggle to reform the Oakland police department that has involved federal review, leadership changes, public protests and a push for civilian oversight.

This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous: Master documentarian Barbara Kopple records the transgender journey of Canadian Gigi Lazzarato, born Gregory, from challenging childhood to YouTube video stardom.

Bending the Arc: We follow young doctor activists who worked together to bring health care to Haiti’s rural poor and have since risen to prominent roles (one is the current president of the World Bank) in advocating a global right to health.

Water and Power: A California Heist: Director Marina Zenovich examines the state’s water crisis through the lens of money, power and regulatory control as agribusiness continues to expand while groundwater resources are depleted at an unsustainable rate.

Oklahoma City: Director Barak Goodman takes a deeper look at the far-right fanaticism that led to the 1995 bombing of the city’s federal building, killing 168 people; a timely reconsideration of America’s worst act of domestic terrorism given that some 500 militant extreme-right groups are currently active.

Slamdance docs

Deserving of notice are several documentaries from this alternative festival that takes place during Sundance. Its top jury and audience award went to Strad Style, directed by Stefan Avalos who trained as a classical violinist. The film’s subject, Daniel Houck, is a penniless, eccentric rural Ohio recluse obsessed with the famous Italian violin-makers Stradivari and Guarneri. A great stranger-than-fiction true story unfolds as, incredibly, he succeeds in making a replica of a priceless Guarneri violin for the virtuoso concert violinist Razvan Stoica.

In What Lies Upstream director Cullen Hoback presents the disturbing findings of his investigation into Americans’ health concerns over the safety of water supplies. The focus turns from from the scandal over lead in Flint, Michigan, to the widespread abuses in West Virginia where scientific evidence of contamination from chemical, industrial and coal-mining sources is up against state-corporate collusion including by regulators charged with protecting the public. It’s a situation the Trump administration’s agenda could make even worse.