PARK CITY, Utah—I don’t think it’s any accident that the films embraced by audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival weren’t the usual quirky comedies and dysfunctional relationship dramas, but rather those formerly humble vessels known as documentaries.
At a time when people are feeling lied to—election season plus an unpopular war will do that—truth-telling has an undeniable appeal.
But it’s more than that.
A new wave of directors, inspired by the ones who did so much to push the bar forward in the 1990s, have brought Hollywood production values, powerful real-life storytelling and crowd-pleasing features—like, oh, humor—to what was once a reliable and even predictable video form.
It was not that long ago that documentaries aimed at either the head or the heart. But the films that got Sundance filmgoers talking this month did both.
Just as Michael Moore, Errol Morris and the makers of “Hoop Dreams” pushed their audiences to demand more of nonfiction film, the same will be said of documentaries like the ones I saw this week.
Here now, my five favorites from Sundance 2008’s documentary competition. Many will be on TV this year, and on DVD.
“Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”
Director Christopher Bell has been obsessed with muscle-bound athletes and bodybuilders his whole life.
His two brothers went even further, pumping steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs into their bodies in hopes of looking like their heroes, men with names like Arnold and Hulk who preached physical fitness and vitamin-taking but kept their steroid use quiet.
Bell wondered: Why is American society so hard on steroid users when it condones cheating and shortcut-taking in so many other parts of life?
It could’ve been an interesting little investigative piece. Instead, the first-time filmmaker turned the camera on his own family, and the result is a brutally honest look at a culture desperate to get ahead at any cost—and just as desperate to look like they won fair and square.
With its blistering pace, clever use of old video footage (for instance, to demonstrate how Gov. Schwarzenegger has quietly distanced himself from his onetime openness about taking `roids) and totally relatable characters, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” will have you talking both about the Bell family and America’s drug denial long after the lights go up. You might say it’s a traditional documentary ... on steroids!
“The Order of Myths”
In 2007 Margaret Brown returned to her native Mobile, Ala., to record the city’s dual Mardi Gras celebrations, one for its African-American community and one for its white community.
With the help of participants on both sides, Brown paints a portrait of an institution seemingly stuck in the Stone Age.
It’s a surprisingly moving film about how people feel bound to the past, even against their better judgment, and how, with a little openness (and a filmmaker’s prodding, perhaps), people and their institutions can change without destroying the memories that give us comfort.
Two ethnographers run around the world making tapes of people speaking so-called endangered languages. Sound like homework? It’s not, for these two geniuses have an adventurous streak, and the two cameras follow them as they travel the globe, getting people to speak in obscure tongues (some with as few as one practicing speaker) to their microphones and cameras.
Funny, enlightening and ultimately uplifting, “The Linguists” demonstrates how the act of recording a dying language can, ironically, bring it back to life.
Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad grew up in Zarqa, as did the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq—and the lowly cardboard recycler who is the subject of this engrossing film that rewards the patient viewer.
Want to know where the al- Zarqawis of the world are coming from?
They are intelligent people with few economic prospects, like this very conservative Muslim who allows Massad to track his every move.
If you need constant stimulation or dislike subtitles, “Recycle” is not your film. But I am still thinking about it days after I’ve seen it, a sign that Massad and his film have made their mark.
“Trouble the Water”
Two weeks before Hurricane Katrina, Kimberly Rivers Roberts bought a camcorder. You would never imagine her amateur footage would be the heart and soul of such a powerful documentary as “Trouble the Water.”
But because it is such a complete document—one part Exodus, one part Odyssey—as Roberts and her husband venture out of Louisiana with little more than the shirts on their backs, and because Roberts discovers new strength and abilities in the weeks after Katrina, “Trouble the Water” is much more than a disaster film.
It’s a film about personal recovery that many in New Orleans are still waiting to see in their neighborhoods.
... AND FIVE MORE TO WATCH
“I.O.U.S.A.”: From the team that made “Wordplay,” this highly accessible film about America’s debt crunch and how we got there should be screened in every high school civics class in the country.
“Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)”: This epic tale was filmed over 23 years, as members of a Laotian family chased out of their native land grappled with their new life in the United States and some of the almost unimaginable curveballs it threw at them. Sets a new standard for documentaries in high definition.
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”: The most talked-about film at Sundance 2008 was this documentary that challenges everything we thought we knew about the 30-year-old morals case that led the director of “Rosemary’s Baby” to flee the U.S.
“Up the Yangtze”: This beautifully made documentary centers on the great Chinese river and a “farewell cruise” taken by wealthy pleasure-seekers up its waters for the last time before a government hydro project floods the homes of 2 million people, many of them peasants.
“Be Like Others”: In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death—but men surgically becoming women, and vice versa, is sanctioned under Islam. This unsettling film follows several young people who undergo the procedure.