PARK CITY, UTAH—Whether Sundance’s claim to have gone back to its “roots” reflects a conscious decision in programming or in publicity (how many films could this festival have rejected for being too commercial?), there’s no denying that the market in Park City this year was down, particularly in the realm of documentary sales. Last year’s near-animalistic hunger for nonfiction (e.g., Grizzly Man, March of the Penguins) would be tough to match no matter what the climate; at the snowy end of Sundance ’06, made chillier for some by the thought of Bubble burster Mark Cuban closing the industry’s windows and leaving exhibitors in the cold, the only Amerindie doc to have been picked up for stateside distribution is the only one without a subtext standing in the way of that good old-fashioned art house ka-ching.
In WORDPLAY (sold to IFC Films for $1 million), what you see—a handful of self-obsessed puzzlemasters preparing to compete in a big crossword tournament—is what you get, and it’s all you get. As the world burns, the psychology of privileged geeks who use language not to communicate but to rarefy themselves unto isolation is fertile terrain left totally unexplored—and I’m guessing that’s why the film appeared a reasonable investment. As if seeking the favor of his subjects and their kindred puzzlers in the core audience, director Patrick Creadon doesn’t begin to suggest that all this defensive wordsmithing could be put to more constructive use almost anywhere else (even in a sniping movie review).
At the opposite extreme, TV JUNKIE (rumored at press time to be near a pickup) delivers what may be the most overtly terrifying depiction of white male narcissism in Sundance history—and I know you know that’s saying a lot. Would you believe that its narcissist shot the footage himself? Some claimed to see the breeder’s Tarnation in family man Rick Kirkham’s epic camcorder autobiography, an appalling attempt by this former Inside Edition correspondent to romanticize his interrelated addictions to celebrity, daredevil athleticism, crack cocaine, and domestic abuse; what I saw, even with its milky, handheld home video look, comes much closer to The Shining. Kirkham, who casts his wife and young sons as victims in a real-life horror movie, is clearly possessed by something beyond his control; but like workaholic dull-boy Jack, he’s scariest for embodying all of American patriarchy. (If video-on-demand weren’t killing the midnight movie, Kirkham’s profoundly unsettling shocker could gather an old-style cult.)
However much it accounts for his monstrous behavior, the TV junkie’s chemical dependency had a home at a festival whose nonfiction didn’t lack for depictions of illness. A LION IN THE HOUSE devotes nearly four hours to a close study of kids with terminal cancer and parents with interminable grief; its filmmaking is strictly point-and-shoot (and shoot and shoot), but of course it breaks you down anyway. Even stronger is THIN, whose stark portrait of young anorexic women in a residential treatment center gains hugely from the subjects’ full disclosure, and from director Lauren Greenfield’s refusal to conclude stories of endless struggle on a high note or to excuse the U.S. health care system for its shameful lack of attention to this disease.
In other words, Thin made an impression at a festival where the personal wasn’t always political. So did AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, whose marketable identity as the Al Gore Concert Film (“I used to be the next president of the United States”) quickly shifts under the weight of his concern with global warming, its causes, and our responsibility; essentially a filmed slide show (including a projection of lower Manhattan’s future underwater), Truth restores one’s faith in documentary as lecture (and politician as teacher). In a similar spirit, Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney lends her abundant intellect and charisma to AMERICAN BLACKOUT, wherein outrage over the voter disenfranchisement of 2000 and 2004 turns to measured hope in the fact that a woman as radically electable as McKinney still holds office. (Ralph Nader, on the other hand, won’t likely pick up new support from AN UNREASONABLE MAN, a two-and-a-half-hour biography that further proves the man’s obstinacy by failing to account for it.)
Among the U.S. docs in competition for awards, GOD GREW TIRED OF US, winner of both audience and jury prizes, puts exceedingly high production values and Nicole Kidman voice-overs toward the goal of sensitizing an imagined art house crowd to the struggles of African immigrants and the families they leave behind; cast as comic fish out of water, its “lucky” Sudanese lost boys learn the ropes in America, using their melancholy to direct the movie’s tone themselves. Me, I would have voted for James Longley’s IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation.
It isn’t just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years, gaining access to the stories of civilian Iraqis in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It’s that he used this occasion to make an art film—framing fact as if it were fiction, digitally flaring colors in defiance of vérité and every preconception of a ravaged country, shocking us first with the beauty of Iraq and then with the recognition of why we’re never allowed to see it that way. Alternative distribution may well come in handy for a film that seems to stand in opposition not only to current sales trends, but to those that came before. That is, if Longley’s astonishing feat of poetic agitation has a precedent in the entire history of documentary, I’m not aware of it.