Sundance kicked off in 1985 with a firm appreciation for non-fiction film, bestowing its first documentary prize on Joel Demott and Jeff Kreins’s Seventeen. Since then, it’s been the place to see eccentric portraits and reports from the current events frontline. As you might expect, this year’s line-up contains plenty of hotspots, including Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. There are also a selection of larger-than-life figures ranging from Jean-Michel Basquiat to the king of the American paparazzi. Expect plenty of discussion over that post-film hot chocolate.
No question that Benazir Bhutto was a remarkable political figure. Chosen to lead her family’s political dynasty, the onetime Pakistani PM was on the verge of remarkable comeback before being shot in 2008. This biopic is in good hands. Director Johnny O’Hara won a Sundance Audience Award for his 2008 film Fields of Fuel. But he might have turned the cameras on his producer. Duane Baughman’s consulting firm worked on Hilary Clinton’s presidential run and was due to assist with Bhutto’s campaign. All of which suggests that this doc might skim over charges of corruption against the martyr and her cronies.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Filmmaker Alex Gibney leapt to the front rank when his Taxi to the Dark Side won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2008. His latest is a portrait of Jack Abramoff, the political lobbyist found guilty of fraud in 2006. (His Native American clients account for the “Casino Jack” tag.) Gibney has spoken of the fallen politico as a symptom of a wider malaise caused by campaign financing. “Jack is not a rotten apple; he’s proof that the barrel is rotten,” he told Sundance. “It’s a comedy, but the joke is on us.” Tom Delay plays Costello to Abramoff’s Abbott.
Chico Colvard’s debut documentary tells a remarkable story – his own. When he was 10, Colvard accidentally shot his sister with his father’s rifle. The trip to the hospital began an unravelling of the entire family. Now an academic and filmmaker in residence at WGBH, Colvard visits his sisters to piece together a case of abuse straight out of Capturing the Friedmans. Like that film, he discovers that even the most heinous crimes can be overcome by the urge to keep the unit together. As one of the siblings puts it, “As dysfunctional as it was, we needed each other.” Fasten your seatbelts.
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I’m Pat ______ Tillman/The Tillman Story
After 9/11, safety Pat Tillman left the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army. In April 2004, he died in the mountains of Afghanistan. As more details came to light, it emerged that Tillman had not been slain in an ambush, but by friendly fire. Director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) presents the story of a real American hero’s death, the shameful cover-up that followed, and a mother’s fight for the truth. The presence of the Tillman family at Park City should insure plenty of embarrassing interviews by film bloggers who haven’t been to journalism school.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
At the beginning of Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquat, somebody remarks that nobody wants to let the next Van Gogh slip through their fingers. Basquiat managed to somehow get away from the New York art establishment – heroin will do that do you. This documentary on the graffiti artist-turned-neo-expressionist was directed by another one of his friends, Tamra Davis, who went from the heart of New York’s downtown to directing Billy Madison.
Director Jeffrey Blitz was responsible for Spellbound, one of the most successful documentaries ever made not to feature Michael Moore. So did Blitz win the lottery? Only if you consider directing episodes of The Office a dream job. Now Blitz is back where he belongs, and his new doc looks at lottery winners and how their flash fortunes have affected them. Turns out it’s not so much how the money changes you, as how it brings to harsh light what’s always been there. We still wouldn’t mind our Powerball ship coming in.
Laura Poitras first met Yemeni taxi driver Abu Jandal while planning a film on the Guantanamo Bay prison. Jandal had worked as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. Although he was freed from Camp X-Ray, his brother-in-law was still fighting for his release. The filmmaker follows up her wonderful My Country, My Country with a look at how the two men took different paths through al Qaeda and Gitmo. Inspired by Don Delillo and the Dardennes, it’s both a powerful story of incarceration and family bonds.
The Iraq-Afghan clusterfuck is a definite touchstone for this year’s crop of doc makers, and it sure beats Fox and CNN’s coverage. The Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger embedded himself with the Second Platoon as they battled the Taliban in what’s been described as “the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.” Restrepo looks at the award-winning pin-up’s year spent among the grunts. Co-director and cinematographer Tim Hetherington previously made films on Sudan and Liberia.
Smash His Camera
Newsweek called him the “paparazzo extraordinaire” and his pursuit of Jacqueline Onassis took him all the way to court. When We Were Kings director Leon Gast gets his head out of The Congo long enough to profile celebrity photographer Ron Galella. He’s been roughed up by Richard Burton’s bodyguards and socked one on the kisser by Marlon Brando himself, so the 78-year-old snapper should have plenty of dirt to shovel.
Waiting for Superman
In An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim alerted the world to its imminent deep-frying. Now the filmmaker wants us to wake up to the education disaster in America. He follows five families, ranging from Harlem to Northern California, looking for the ideal schools for their kids. It’s a journey that takes in private schools and so-called “drop-out factories,” and should have film critics who award letter grades rubbing their hands with glee. Providing the charismatic lynchpin is activist Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone has inspired Obama’s education policies.
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