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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Powerful documentaries take spotlight at Sundance

Gerald Schmitz

Sundance founder Robert Redford has long emphasized the value of documentaries to get at deeper truths beyond “the soundbite superficiality of the news cycle,” as he put it at the opening press conference. The 2018 edition proved his point and confirmed the festival’s stellar reputation for presenting the best in non-fiction storytelling. Indeed two documentaries, Science Fair, and Believer, topped the audience poll of “festival favourites.” Here are the top picks from my viewings:

Of Fathers and Sons (Germany/Syria/Lebanon

In 2014 Syrian director Talal Derki won the Sundance grand jury world cinema award for Return to Homs. He repeated that achievement with this even more astonishing film about life in war-torn, rebel-held Syria, undertaken at great personal risk. Derki’s base in exile is Berlin. But for several years he embedded himself with jihadists in Syria, notably including the family of one of the founders of the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, whose sons are among the young boys trained to be child soldiers and potential martyrs. Although the Islamic State may have lost territory, what will be the generational impact of this terrible civil war?

Kailash (U.S.)

This U.S. documentary grand jury winner directed by Derek Doneen follows the efforts of Indian Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi in rescuing enslaved child labourers. In the face of violent attacks, he has built a strong “Save the Children” movement, involving several hundred activists who have liberated over 80,000 children, part of a global campaign to end child slavery. We see compelling personal stories and dramatic footage of raids on abusive employers, exposing the networks of traffickers who often bribe local police forces.

Dark Money (U.S.

Years in the making, this superb film by director Kimberly Reed adds significantly to the evidence of how a flood of hidden corporate cash pushing a radical right-wing agenda is influencing American elections at all levels as presented in Jane Mayer’s seminal 2016 bestseller of the same name. Reed does this through a detailed eye-opening investigation of what has happened in the state of Montana including attacks on longstanding campaign finance laws and moderate conservative politicians. (More in a next column.)

Won’t You Be My neighbour? (U.S.)

Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Jim Judkis

This audience favourite from director Morgan Neville recalls the influence of children’s television host Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who believed strongly in early childhood education and whose show, Mister Rogers neighbourhood, which moved from a local Pittsburgh station to PBS nationally, would become a beloved institution for generations of children. The gentle legacy of Rogers, a lifelong Republican and true compassionate conservative who died in 2003, stands in sharp contrast to today’s Trumpian fearmongering. Rogers advocated for educational public broadcasting and believed in the power of love of neighbour. The greatest evil, he said, was “those who would make you feel less than who you are.”

This is Home: A Refugee Story (U.S.)

Director Alexandra Shiva’s intimate portrait of Syrian refugee families adjusting to a new life in Baltimore received the U.S. documentary audience award. The current anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim climate (Trump’s travel bans and total ban on accepting more refugees from Syria) adds to its impact. Shiva focuses on the efforts of individuals like truck driver Khaldoun, a father of four who was tortured in Syrian prisons, on the dedicated work of the International Rescue Committee whose assistance is limited, however, to eight months, and the local community response. How brave are the efforts of these newcomers, and how heartwarming to see the spirit of being good neighbours still at work in America.

Three Identical Strangers (U.K.)

A co-production of CNN and Channel 4, director Tim Wardle received a special jury award for storytelling for this remarkable account of male triplets born in a Long Island hospital in 1980, separated at birth by a Jewish adoption agency and deliberately placed with three families of different socio-economic status as part of a “nature versus nurture” study that was never published. The boys — Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman — grew up not knowing they had any brothers, much less identical ones. Observed “like lab rats,” their parents were also kept in the dark. At age 19 they discovered each other, briefly becoming celebrities. But the notorious case, investigated by author Lawrence Wright, has taken an inexcusable toll.

Akicita: The Battle for Standing Rock (U.S.

Indigenous filmmaker Cody Lucich directs this stirring chronicle of the efforts by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline transporting petroleum across sacred land and under the Missouri River. The protest camp of activists and water keepers grew to be the largest gathering of Native American tribes since Wounded Knee, facing off against the armed forces of the corporate state. Although the Trump administration pushed through the pipeline, the world was “watching through indigenous eyes,” and a sacred fire of solidarity continues to spread.

Crime + Punishment (U.S.)

Urgent and compelling, director Stephen Maing’s investigation of chronic bias and corruption in the New York Police Department earned a special jury mention for social impact. The focus is on the courageous efforts of the NYPD 12, a group of intrepid officers who have worked to expose quota systems that unfairly target minority communities while raking in fines for city coffers. The abuses, and the cover-ups by higher-ups, are still under investigation.

Quiet Heroes (U.S.

While conservative Mormon Utah turned its back on HIV/AIDS sufferers, a compassionate medical practitioner, Dr. Kristin Ries, had arrived in Salt Lake City’s Catholic hospital run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. As the crisis hit she became the only physician willing to treat AIDS patients. Supported by the nuns, and together with nurse assistant Maggie Snyder, who became her life partner, she was a bright light of compassionate care in a climate of denial and fear that scarred so many lives.

Minding the Gap (U.S.

Brilliantly constructed from many years of video footage shot by Chinese-American director Bing Liu, and recipient of a special jury award for “breakthrough filmmaking,” this is a raw and revealing chronicle of the perils of growing up in a depressed rustbelt town, namely Liu’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Liu turns the camera on himself and two skateboarding buddies (one white trash, one African-American) as they deal with dysfunctional family issues and dead-end job prospects. As a picture of boyhood in middle America, it’s amazingly candid and concerning.

Our New President (Russia/U.S.)

The “new president” is of course Donald J. Trump. But the “our” refers to Russian devotion to him with many indeed taking credit for his election. Director Maxim Pozdorovkin and his crew received a special jury award for editing for this collage of the outrageous fabrications fed the Russian people by their television networks — subservient to if not directly controlled by the Putin regime — as they demonized Hillary Clinton and glorified Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 election. It’s a lesson in the power of this new world of manufactured propaganda to flood the airwaves and the Internet and to poison people’s minds. Democracy and truth are the losers.

Generation Wealth (U.S.

From Amazon studios, director Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles) chronicles her own career as a photojournalist observing late-capitalist decadence with a penetrating examination of the corrosive effects of modern societies’ obsessions with money, success, status, and celebrity. Astute American social critic Chris Hedges offers some sharp commentaries about the dangers of a culture becoming “completely pornified” and corrupted. It’s a cautionary story about what happens when the pursuit of happiness is seduced by superficial and illusory values.

Genesis 2.0 (Switzerland/China/Russia/South Korea/U.S.

Recipient of a special jury award for cinematography, co-directors Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev follow the hunters visiting the remote High Arctic New Siberian Islands in order to unearth the precious ivory tusks of extinct woolly mammoths that are becoming accessible as a result of thawing permafrost, with 20-30 tons being harvested annually. At the same time, Russian and South Korean clone researchers are looking to find cells of intact mammoth DNA in a quest to resurrect the species. Where will the ambitious goals of this man-as-creator “synthetic biology” lead?

Anote’s Ark (Canada

For all the promise of future scientific advances, humanity faces more imminent perils from the impacts of accelerating climate change. In the case of some small island nations the threat is existential as rising sea levels may submerge them entirely. Montreal-based filmmaker Matthieu Rytz follows the efforts of Anote Tong, president of the Pacific nation of Kiribati from 2003 — 2016, in seeking “climate justice” and “migration with dignity” if it comes to that. He has found an ally in Pope Francis in making the case for addressing this greatest moral challenge.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (U.S.)

In this HBO production director Marina Zenovich does an excellent job of capturing key moments in the career of the eccentric comic genius, the only child of a Ford executive, who achieved great success in television and then Hollywood, which masked a vulnerable dark side. Beyond the manic performances that made him famous, we see some of the private Williams, vulnerable to addictions and the depressions to which he ultimately succumbed after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

A Polar Year (France)

A hybrid of documentary and dramatization, director Samuel Collardey follows the residents of a tiny remote northeastern Greenlandic community as they reenact their time with a young Danish teacher, Anders Hvidegaard, a farmer’s son who comes on a temporary assignment and falls in love with the people and the stunning Arctic landscapes. We can understand why he doesn’t want to go back.

The Devil We Know (U.S. )

Director Stephanie Soechtig investigates the potential long-term health hazards of a bio-persistent chemical compound linked to Teflon that was introduced by DuPont in 1945 and is now found in the blood of 99 per cent of Americans. They focus on the scientific studies and the legal battles of DuPont and 3M plant workers and West Virginia residents most affected by the chemicals’ manufacture. Notwithstanding compensation settlements and replacement chemical formulas, the risks to health remain in question.

Seeing Allred (U.S.)

With women speaking out as never before, this Netflix original production, now available to stream, is strikingly timely. Directors Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman have put together a dynamic and engaging profile of Gloria Allred, America’s most prominent women’s rights attorney, herself a survivor of violence, an indefatigable advocate for equal rights unafraid to court controversy. One has to admire her commitment to seeking justice for victims (including of the sexual predator in the White House). To give her the last word: “The fight has just begun.”

*Finally a note about a short film, Marshall Curry’s A Night at the Garden which shows chilling archival footage from February 1939 when some 22,000 self-described American “patriots” attended a Nazi-organized pro-Hitler rally in Madison Square Garden. It’s worth recalling at a time when neo-Nazis and white supremacists are feeling emboldened by the demagogue in the White House. Watch it here: .