The Sundance Documentaries: Filmmakers Tackle Family, Politics, And The Paparazzi : Monkey See Among the documentaries to impress our critic at Sundance this year were one about the abortion debate and one about a family in China trying to put itself back together.
NPR logo The Sundance Documentaries: Filmmakers Tackle Family, Politics, And The Paparazzi

The Sundance Documentaries: Filmmakers Tackle Family, Politics, And The Paparazzi

The documentary Restrepo is one of quite a few to make an impression at the Sundance Film Festival. Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington hide caption

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Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington

by Ella Taylor

As you've probably heard ad nauseam, most of the chatter out of Sundance this year was about the collapse of independent film and the search for new distribution models. None of this will come as news to non-fiction filmmakers, who -- unless they're Michael Moore -- have struggled with the former and gone in search of the latter for years as they've cobbled together funding from wherever (mostly HBO and public television) and (if they're lucky) squeezed in week-long runs at rapidly dwindling art-house movie theaters in major cities.

Somehow, documentaries thrived anyway in the new century's first years, supported by cable and public television, maxed-out credit cards and the fact that many can be made on the cheap. Now, along with other independent films, they're an endangered species again. So it's great that the Sundance Film Festival, whose founder, Robert Redford, has always maintained a proprietary interest in docs, remains true to its brief as a premier launch pad for non-fiction filmmaking. Still, those of us who love the form can't help but wring our hands over the fact that seven of the top ten movies voted on by critics in an Indiewire poll Thursday were docs, yet almost none have theatrical distribution.

I already wrote about the riveting but tricksy Catfish here, but my favorite docs this year were all, more or less, verite slices of life that set aside sloganeering in favor of a keenly observant eye that implicitly broadened and deepened critical public debate about their subjects.

In Restrepo, co-directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) embedded themselves with a platoon of U.S. soldiers deployed to a hair-raisingly exposed valley in Afghanistan where they were sitting ducks for Taliban snipers. Given that Junger's a bit of a danger freak, I had feared that the film might indulge in the escalating war porn that has increasingly vulgarized evening news TV footage. But Restrepo immerses itself in the daily routines of these shockingly young boys as they fortify their position, ingratiate themselves with the same villagers whose houses they also intermittently destroy, and try to reconcile boredom with terror with cluelessness about what they're doing here in the first place. (The National Geographic Channel has acquired broadcast rights to Restrepo.)

More documentaries, after the jump.

Over the course of one very patient year, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) parked their cameras on a Florida street corner between an abortion clinic and a pregnancy care center that fronts for the pro-life movement, and got to know both sides pretty thoroughly. Switching between the two in 12th and Delaware, they show a battle of ideas and religious beliefs articulated in fiery language that drives the two sides further apart. It's not hard to guess where the filmmakers stand, but what I loved about this quietly observant movie is their refusal to enter into the stridency that mars the debate itself. The anti-abortionists came off as zealots but not idiots, while the pro-choice partisans made clear that they don't see pregnancy termination as a lark.

The gutsy television company ITVS, which has embraced alternative distribution models for years, had three documentaries at Sundance this year. I wasn't able to see Laura Poitras's The Oath, about a Yemenite family, Al Qaeda and Guantanamo Bay. My Perestroika offers fascinatingly differing accounts of how several Russian former high school classmates have fared since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- naturally, those who fared worst retain some nostalgia for the relative economic security of the bad old days, but it won't astonish you to hear that nobody's wild for Putin.

And the Chinese documentary Last Train Home ended up as my favorite film of the festival, bar none. Director Lixin Fan followed a migrant-worker couple trying to get tickets for trips home to their village to see the kids they left with their grandmother years ago in order to earn a meager living. Watching this devastating portrait of a family trying to glue itself back together, you wonder how China, on its way to becoming the world's richest nation, will avoid civil war if it doesn't also attend to the needs of the millions of poverty-stricken families like this one.

The late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael was known for her defense of pop culture, but less well-known is her remark that as she got older she craved documentaries. "After all the years of stale, stupid, acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them," she wrote in her seminal essay Trash, Art and the Movies, "I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of nonactors and for knowledge of how people live -- for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we're tired of."

I have a feeling Kael would have enjoyed the pop realism in Smash His Camera, an affectionate portrait by Leon Gast of ace paparazzo Ron Galella. The movie is mild stuff for Gast, who made the incendiary When We Were Kings, about the 1974 fight in Zaire between George Foreman and a young upstart named Muhammad Ali -- not because Smash His Camera is a tepid film, but because compared to the lengths current paparazzi will go to attract the attention of far less elegant celebrities than Jackie Onassis, Galella's a pussycat.

And now, dry-eyed and all movied-out, I'm going home.