Have the marketplace successes of Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9⁄11) and Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) changed the chances for documentary films? If Sundance this year was any guide, yes. The trend-spotting festival was bolder than usual in showcasing politically-charged films.
This was a year when, along with Paris Hilton and John Waters, Al Gore counted as a Sundance celeb. He was everywhere, including a lead role in An Inconvenient Truth, a film by Davis Guggenheim which showcases Gore’s shocking and authoritative slide show on global warming. The documentary was produced by Hollywood’s Participant Productions, the new social-conscience production company fueled by Jeff Skoll’s dotcom wealth, which made Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck. The company also premiered The World According to Sesame Street, an endearing look at the show’s international work.
Political outrage skipped merrily through the generations. On one end was Haskell Wexler, the renowned cinematographer who started filming in the ’40s with Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz, and who’s still working (recently on John Sayles’ Silver City). Wexler’s Who Needs Sleep? explores the ever-lengthening hours of Hollywood film shoots. Made over the eight years since a cameraman died on the road after an overlong day, the film indicts an industry and implicates many others. The film business, which in Wexler’s youth expected eight-hour days, now works location workers so long that they are mobilizing to fight for a 14-hour day. Although IATSE (the industry union) members have voted unanimously to address the issue of fatigue, notoriously corrupt union bosses refuse to take it up. In fact, everywhere Wexler goes – his local, the national, OSHA – he finds a shrug. So it’s back to DIY. The film is designed to spur people to organize, and he’s optimistic: “I worked with Spanish Republicans in the ’30s. I had my passport taken away in the ’50s. I’ve seen it all and it’s turning around.”
At the other end of the age spectrum is baby-faced Ian Inaba, who improbably started out as an investment banker and, felled by the dotcom bust, has gone on to co-create an Internet TV news channel, Guerrilla News Network (guerrillanews.com). His American Blackout is a gutsy retelling of electoral outrages that stifled African Americans’ ability to vote in the 2000 election, and Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s (D‑Ga.) 2004 victory, which rested on the African-American turnout. “I got fascinated with how mainstream media were participating in the censorship of dissent,” Inaba says. “We want to show black voters that their vote is being disenfranchised exactly because it’s so valuable, and to mobilize the black vote next time around.” The film won a special jury prize.
Many docs were designed for organizing. Patricia Foulkrod’s The Ground Truth shows us young soldiers whose ideals are betrayed by a war they cannot support and by the failures of postwar care. Their stories are interwoven with Foulkrod’s horrifying photographs and video of the Iraq war. “I want everybody to see it, so our soldiers are not just left hanging when they come back,” she says. Foulkrod hopes to borrow from Robert Greenwald’s success with grassroots distribution once the Sundance deals are cut.
Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats and Rhymes is a gutsy critique of a hip-hop culture that has gone, in Hurt’s short lifetime, from critical of oppression to oppressive in its violent caricature of gender roles. He takes his questions about the now-endemic thuggery to hip-hop artists, fans, and eventually the business. Most hip-hop sells to whites, he discovers, and record companies encourage the worst stereotypes. Ultimately, he says, black men have to take responsibility for the art they’re creating. Hurt, a long-time hip-hop fan and anti-sexism activist, is taking his film to kids throughout the nation before it airs on public TV’s “Independent Lens” series.
One filmmaker decided to take on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – the people who bring us the movie ratings and who label all copying “piracy.” This Film Is Not Yet Rated, by smart and funny Kirby Dick, charges the MPAA with censorship by ratings, motivated among other things by favoritism (big studios above indies) and anti-gay sentiment. During the fest, the MPAA was caught red-handed making, ahem, unauthorized copies of Dick’s film. When asked about it, the filmmaker just laughed.
I’m betting you’ll see at least some of the fest’s high-quality social issue docs on television and even in theaters soon. One likely choice is Iraq in Fragments–which won directing, cinematography and editing prizes. James Longley (Gaza Strip) gives us three vignettes from the Iraq he experienced between 2003 and 2005. Not a moment from these Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish daily lives is familiar from U.S. news programs, and it’s all eye-opening. Longley plans to work with human rights organizations to get the film out as well as strike a distribution deal.
Already scheduled is A Lion in the House, a two-parter that follows several children with cancer for six years: It will be part of the Independent Television Service series “Independent Lens.” (Sundancers were horrified to hear that Julia Reichert, the co-director, had to leave the festival after a call from her own doctor confirming a cancer diagnosis.) Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s The Trials of Darryl Hunt, about a false conviction overturned after two decades of unflagging community pressure, will show up on HBO.
In Clear Cut, Peter Richardson goes back to Philomath, his Oregon hometown, where the local business of timber is ceding to tourism. There, a culturally conservative foundation head – whose foundation has paid college tuition for all high school graduates for decades – precipitates a conflict that rips the town apart. Swiss documentarian Heidi Specogna creates a superb miniature of globalization in The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez. Gutierrez, a Guatemalan undocumented immigrant, was one of the first soldiers to die in Iraq.
The slogan of Participant Productions–“changing the world one story at a time” – could have been the slogan of Sundance docs this year. And with grassroots and viral marketing catching on, many of them will work on that soon after their debut.