PARK CITY, UTAH—Albeit a reliable essential to veteran substance-seekers at Sundance, the fest’s documentary lineup is never totally immune to the celebrity scopophilia that afflicts the bulk of fiction fare at this purported showcase for independent film. Indeed, as a measure of how much E!’s high-powered spotlight has brightened the thematically gloomy field of specialty docs, even the avowedly alternative Slamdance kicked off this year with a starstruck survey of the ’70s New Hollywood—”based” (in name only, alas) on Peter Biskind’s dishier scoop, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Not to be outdone, of course, the bigger festival had its own movie-brat doc—with bigger brats. That A Decade Under the Influence is distinguished by sober chats with Marty and Francis no doubt owes to the insiderdom of Hollywood screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, who share directing credit. (Bulls wrangler Kenneth Bowser could only rope in the likes of Dennis Hopper and Margot Kidder.) Yet LaGravenese still feels the need to reward interviewee Polly Platt with a kiss—and, even more inexplicably, to include the sight of said smooch alongside the end credits of a film that means to salute the uncompromising brand of American cinema.
Where Decade pays less literal lip service to Jane Fonda and her early-’70s support of the enemy in Vietnam, another Sundance ode to American radicals, The Weather Underground, climaxes with a stretch of the activist actor’s inaugural workout tape circa 1982 to signify the cease-fire at home. Shrewdly portraying recent history as a war of representation through a diverse array of archival footage, directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel do more than deliver the definitive documentary portrait of the Weathermen—well-off college kids who spent the ’70s planting bombs and plotting revolution in the land of the free. By daring to premiere their film, years in the making, during the new war on terror, Green and Siegel accentuate the rare audacity of both the Weathermen’s work and their own. (Put it this way: Could current American revolutionaries weather even a single network sweeps season?) Festival fervor aside, the ice-cold image of former Weathermen member Brian Flanagan winning $20,000 on Jeopardy! suggests that only a greater force of nature than the promise of money may be enough to change the prevailing winds.
Likewise feeling the big chill, The Boys of 2nd Street Park and The Same River Twice do double duty as cultural studies and middle-age laments for the loss of potency, if not of purpose. Beginning with its graying subjects’ wistful memories of childhood spent on the Brighton Beach basketball court, Boys fakes left and goes right by positing the counterculture as a trippy intrusion upon white male innocence—nothing that a third-act pickup game can’t fix. (At least directors Dan Klores and Ron Berger hit a free-throw on the soundtrack, scoring vintage cuts by Dylan and the Dead.) Less recuperative in intent, Same River has filmmaker Robb Moss lingering over the 16mm footage he shot in ’78 of him and his friends communing for a month-long rafting trip down the Colorado—in their birthday suits. Twenty-some years later, Moss’s DV camera finds the former free spirits—now fully clothed—dealing ambivalently with kids, careers, and mortgages.
Whether owing to the median age of the most trusted documentarians or to the renewed nostalgia for a time when oppositional viewpoints were abundant, baby boomers and their fans were clearly the core audience for nonfiction this year: Besides the films mentioned above, there were docs about Charles Bukowski (Bukowski: Born Into This), the late Atlantic Records knob-twiddler Tom Dowd (Tom Dowd & the Language of Music), the early civil rights struggle (The Murder of Emmett Till and Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin), and, uh, the pill (The Pill). That ’60s survivor Oliver Stone gets up close and personal with a seventysomething Fidel Castro in Comandante—at the expense of Cuban exiles, some held—adds somewhat less to the overall picture of post-counterculture prosperity than the breaking news that the director would be granting “red carpet interviews” on his way into the world premiere. In any case, it was left to Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech to tell the émigré story in their stirring Balseros, a careful examination of seven of the tens of thousands of Cubans who set sail for Miami on homemade rafts in 1994.
Like Comandante and at least a dozen other docs, Balseros arrived at Sundance with a broadcast deal already in place. One of those that didn’t was Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, whose well-deserved Grand Jury Prize stands to bring it even wider exposure. Equal parts found-footage treasure trove and reality-TV-style mindfuck, Friedmans burrows into the case of a Long Island family’s spectacular collapse in the late ’80s, when patriarch Arnold, followed by his youngest son Jesse, was brought up on multiple charges of child molestation. Blessed with old TV news clips, present-day interviews, and, remarkably, the family’s own startlingly combative home videos from around the time of the two sentencings, Jarecki juggles his wealth of material to such a degree—to a fault, arguably—that the viewer reaches film’s end more doubtful than ever of the accused’s culpability. In the absence of focus, the thin blue line remains a big fat blur.
Taking similar content to opposite extremes in Stevie, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) renders a painstakingly personal look at the title character: an immeasurably troubled working-class felon with a propensity for passing his history of abuse along to others. Come to think of it, maybe all of the docs at Sundance are connected. Indeed, James’s voice-over explication of Stevie’s “Snake” nickname (“the feared, some would say evil, reptile with the hard, scaly exterior . . . ) nearly appears explicated itself by Jennifer Baichwal’s The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia, whose thorough investigation of unconscious classism in art is fascinating, perhaps particularly so for critics. And yet debates over representation seem trivial in relation to a pair of purely devastating AIDS-crisis docs at the festival: Elaine Epstein’s State of Denial, named for the South African president’s persistent view of HIV infection as unrelated to the disease; and Weijun Chen’s To Live Is Better Than to Die, which questions its own title by maintaining close proximity to a young Chinese family’s grueling battles with sickness unto death.
Whether I’m right that the latter of these might even be beyond criticism (it has so far remained beyond distribution), To Live Is Better Than to Die makes the young subjects of Jamie Johnson’s Born Rich—those named Newhouse, Trump, Whitney, Bloomberg, and, indeed, Johnson—appear even more obscene than they would otherwise. At press time, a Rich publicist confirmed that Johnson and company were “obviously in a bunch of talks” with distributors—as befits a film, a festival, and an industry that have largely to do with keeping fortunes in the proper hands.
“Risky Business at Sundance 2003” by Anthony Kaufman