Despair, Inc. is the apt name of one of the production companies behind director Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and receives its first New York screening as part of BAM’s annual series of Sundance highlights. The best, and the least ballyhooed, of the recent wave of “green” documentaries, Dunn’s debut feature contains neither computer-simulations of the earth’s imminent destruction nor the appearance of a celebrity host/narrator to share his own fervent environmentalism. But fret not: Robert Redford (who also executive produced) pops up, as if he were just another talking head, to reminisce about the clear, cool Austin creek he learned to swim in as a boy—the continued existence of which has been endangered by two decades of rapid urban expansion.
Redford’s involvement may be partly responsible for the relatively low profile
The Unforeseen had at Sundance this year, where it was presented in the non-competitive American Spectrum sidebar and attended to by relatively little buzz. But any concerns about potential conflicts of interest are rendered irrelevant by Dunn’s clear-eyed intelligence. Rather than taking the whole world as her subject, she has narrowed her focus to one city on one small corner of the planet and shown how, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, urban sprawl has grown there like a cancer.
For a different cityscape: New York–based documentarian Jason Kohn brings the full-fledged shockumentary approach to his non-fiction Grand Jury prize winner, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), a visceral, wide-screen immersion into contemporary Sao Paulo street life that connects the unlikely dots between a black-market frog farm, a plastic surgeon, a professional kidnapper, and Brazil’s booming bulletproof-car industry. Gradually, the disparate pieces form a jigsaw portrait of charismatic (and infamous) politico Jader Barbalho.
Writing from Sundance in January, I was critical of the overall quality of this year’s lineup, less for what it said about the festival itself than for what it said about the overall state of American indie filmmaking. Far too many films, especially those in Sundance’s dramatic competition, felt like calculated bids for acceptance (and big-ticket deals) by the major studios’ so-called “specialty” divisions. (Case in point: Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz’s thoroughly charming, but also thoroughly unadventurous Wes Anderson–lite comedy Rocket Science, which ended up copping the dramatic competition’s directing award.)
But as the BAM series reminds, if one looked beyond the hype and the seven-figure deals, there were gems to be found, including Craig Zobel’s wonderful The Great World of Sound, in which a pair of modern-day Meredith Wilson–style hucksters traverse America to sign new acts to a fly-by-night North Carolina record label. I also had more affection than most for the inarguable film maudit of this year’s dramatic competition, On the Road with Judas, writer-director JJ Lask’s shaggy, endearingly self-conscious meta-movie that, at the root of all its novel-within-movie-within-TV-show-inside-your-head machinations, is actually a surprisingly sweet romance.
This year’s dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner happens to have been partly lensed in Brooklyn itself: In Christopher Zalla’s Padre Nuestro, a Mexican illegal comes to the U.S. in search of his long-lost father only to have his identity stolen by a fellow border crosser. From there, the film cuts between the divergent paths of the two men, as one tries to survive on the streets of New York while the other deals with the moral consequences of ingratiating himself into a family that isn’t his own. Part thriller, part Greek tragedy, Zalla’s Spanish-language film is an altogether bleak portrait of America’s have-nots. It’s not a great movie, but among the films screening at BAM it may be the best exemplar of one of the indie-film movement’s original cultural mandates: to tell stories that Hollywood itself would not tell and to give voice to those often ignored.
For schedule: www.bam.org