Not least because reality checks are in such scant supply elsewhere, the documentary lineup at Sundance has long been a safe haven. Here the activist impulse that eludes most of the fiction features continues to thrive, and the sense of urgency at a given screening has nothing to do with whether an acquisitions executive reaches for his cell phone by the end of the first reel. While their theatrical prospects remain uncertain, many of this year’s docs arrived with eventual TV exposure already guaranteed. Of the 16 competition titles, five were funded at least in part by HBO and another five by the Independent Television Service for PBS. (There’ll be another prominent outlet later this year: Robert Redford announced the launch of a new Sundance cable channel devoted to documentary programming.)
Of course, Sundance docs aren’t entirely immune to the starstruck haze that descends on Park City every January: Recent nonfiction hits have focused on Tammy Faye Bakker, the Sex Pistols, and John Waters. But since this year’s true celebrity story, Biggie and Tupac, was directed by Nick Broomfield, it proved less E! channel handjob than meta-tabloid muckrake. His methodology poised somewhere between performance art and stalking, Broomfield investigates the rappers’ murders and the lineage of intercoastal hip-hop rivalries by gate-crashing the underworlds of organized crime and police corruption. Various news reports have likewise joined the dots between the killings, Death Row records impresario Suge Knight, and the Ramparts scandal, but Broomfield’s deadpan-scurrilous approach pays unique dividends. Biggie and Tupac‘s nominal scoop is a prison-yard interview with Knight; as the obviously unsettled cinematographer keeps pointing the camera skyward, all Suge wants to talk about is his “message to the kids.” Broomfield’s documentaries have often chronicled his pursuit of unattainable women (Margaret Thatcher, Heidi Fleiss, Courtney Love); this film’s unexpectedly heartfelt tone is embodied by Biggie’s mom, the formidable Voletta Wallace, who, in between appeals for justice, counsels the filmmaker on his interview technique and fixes him soup.
The most sobering entries also lingered on the aftermaths of (and preludes to) senseless deaths. Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada reports on a still unsolved killing spree that left more than 200 women dead on the Mexican-American border. Liz Garbus’s The Execution of Wanda Jean records (with the grim inevitability implied by its title) the emotional clemency appeals of a death row inmate, a mildly retarded black lesbian convicted for murdering her lover. In Two Towns of Jasper, directors Whitney Dow and Marco Williams spend a few months with the Texas community shaken by the horrific dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. in 1998.
Jasper was filmed with segregated crews (Williams is black, Dow white), and the resulting portrait goes beyond the clichés of backwater bigotry to the heart of the deep suspicions and fears that keep this racially mixed population suspended in a queasy, grudging truce. (In interviews, the filmmakers, friends since high school, revealed that they had trouble reconciling their own differences: Each worked on his own cut of the film, and the final product was assembled by a third-party editor.) In a notable outreach effort, Two Towns of Jasper was screened for Utah legislators in Salt Lake City as they prepared to debate a hate-crimes bill.
Chirpier but no less haunting, Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold’s toxic-plastic travelogue, Blue Vinyl, journeys from Long Island, where Helfand’s parents have opted to encase their suburban home in vinyl siding; to Lake Charles, Louisiana, the so-called PVC capital of America; to Venice, Italy, for the manslaughter trial of industry honchos who knowingly exposed their factory workers to lethal quantities of vinyl dioxide. The directors accentuate the horror of the statistics with morbid humor and abrasive shtick: Helfand carts a slab of vinyl siding around and wields it much the same way Broomfield does a boom mic.
Celebratory time capsules imbued with sadness, Lee Hirsch’s infectious Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony charts the history of South African freedom songs, and Bill Weber and David Weissman’s The Cockettes fondly recaps the free-loving, acid-fried San Francisco troupe’s brief, glittering heyday. The latter includes priceless footage from the Cockettes’ notorious movie about Tricia Nixon’s wedding, with a plastered “Mamie Eisenhower,” discombobulated “Rose Kennedy,” and Sylvester spiking the punch with LSD.
Speaking of bad behavior, Lucy Walker’s Devil’s Playground explores the custom of rumspringa, which sets Amish 16-year-olds loose in the “outside world” before they decide if they want to be baptized—a trial period that can extend into a years-long bacchanal. (Walker’s doc pointlessly withholds the question that immediately comes to mind—what is the retention rate?—until the very end.) The eponymous subject of Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman’s Sister Helen, a tearjerker that earns its sniffles, didn’t join the faith until her mid fifties, after she’d lost her husband and two sons, and won a battle with alcoholism. A few years after becoming a Benedictine nun, she founded a recovery center in the South Bronx, presiding over a houseful of male addicts with her potty-mouthed brand of tough love.
Two of the most skillful docs double as philosophical experiments in portraiture. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman’s Derrida avoids a deconstruction primer, instead positioning itself as a demonstration of the French thinker’s theories: In a series of interviews, Derrida, ever aware of the camera, is encouraged to systematically dismantle the documentary apparatus. John Walter’s How to Draw a Bunny begins by recounting the death of pop/performance/mail-art provocateur Ray Johnson, who apparently drowned himself in 1995 (shortly after telling acquaintances he was about to create his “greatest work”). The film operates like a sort of red-herring murder mystery, sifting through the contradictory evidence of the dead man’s oeuvre and piecing together overlapping testimonials. Reveling in Johnson’s sheer elusiveness, How to Draw a Bunny matches the artist’s idiosyncratic collages in structure and sensibility—it’s not damning the film with faint praise to say that it does full justice to its subject’s ultimate unknowability.
More Sundance coverage:
“Search and Rescue Operations: Losing the Plot at Sundance” by Dennis Lim
“Low-Budget Movies: Park City Real-Life Consumer Guide” by Josh Goldfein