Over the last couple of decades, the Sundance Film Festival has become one of the definitive launching grounds for non-fiction filmmaking in the world. A large number of the most prominent docs are incubated at their Institute, and dozens of films that play here travel to True/False, HotDocs, TIFF and a myriad of other festivals. With Sundance at its mid-point, a number of compelling titles that should help set the agenda for non-fiction film in 2016 have already been screened.
The opening gala was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, a charming, affable tale that delves into one of the most fascinating and successful figures in late-20th century television. Based on Lear’s recent memoir, the film isn’t shy to delve into some of the darker elements of his story while still being respectful of his legacy. Lear knows how to tell a story, so his interviews are peppered with excellent anecdotes and a frankness that’s welcome. With some nice cinematic flourishes and a narrative conceit that’s effective if a bit twee, it’s a well-honed, honest portrayal of the man.
Tickled tackles a dark mystery lurking within the world of competitive tickling, a premise which must have been one of the best pitches for a doc in some time. As New Zealand directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve dig deeper into their bizarre subject, they unwrap layer after layer of information that’s equal parts surreal and shocking. It’s a madcap mystery that evolves into a menacing conspiracy, and thanks to a keen eye and well assembled storyline it plays as a brisk, engrossing thriller. The project is also a testament to the tenacity of documentarians, running down the story in whatever direction the facts take it rather than going in with a clear answer already in hand. As we watch Farrier and Reeve come to terms with what they uncover, the film manages to elicit both sympathy and concern, effectively drawing in the audience the way the best mysteries can do wonderfully.
There were also security concerns about another film, with Will Allen being revealed as the man behind Holy Hell only days before the festival. As in-house filmmaker for a spiritualist cult, Allen showcases his decades spent under a charismatic leader. The film mixes Allen’s dreamy footage with interviews with his fellow survivors in an effective way, and while some of the seams of his craft show, the remarkable storyline trumps these issues. Several grand reveals were hardly surprising to those in the audience, yet the film manages to capture beautifully how with a series of small steps, one can acquiesce to the whims of a hypnotic guru, and how these small sacrifices can in turn lead to years of near-enslavement.
The title Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off the Wall may be quite the mouthful but it does encapsulate effectively the era being looked at in Spike Lee’s latest documentary. His previous look at Jackson, Bad 25, consciously eschewed any tabloid fodder, concentrating instead on the music and providing a track-by-track account of that recording. This film does the same, skipping the needle back several years and tracing his trajectory from Gary, Indiana through to bubblegum pop success, the move to Epic Records and the eventual first solo recording with Quincy Jones. What sets Lee’s films apart from most music docs is the laid back charm that feeds his interview technique. Sure, we’re treated to a series of talking heads, but with the likes of ?uestlove providing nuggets of wisdom, it feels far more engaging and humorous than didactic. Thanks to the direct participation of Jackson’s estate, fans are also treated to some truly astonishing performances that have been locked in the vault for decades.
Another music doc, Eat that Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words, drops contemporary elements all together, using the loquacious artist’s many interviews to provide the basis for the film. Echoing the likes of The Kids Are Alright, the respected documentary on The Who that also used only vintage material, director Thorsten Schütte and his team manage to satisfy fans and neophytes alike by providing a broad overview of the prolific, iconoclastic artist’s work. Famously Zappa claimed that every note he wrote was part of a larger “conceptual continuity,” a grand project that encompassed everything from his high symphonic works to puerile, sophomoric rock tunes, and the film feels very much in keeping with the man’s work.
Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) returns to Sundance with Nothing Left Unsaid, an examination of the life of Gloria Vanderbilt by her son Anderson Cooper. Garbus’ film has to tackle two major pitfalls: one, it’s easy to see how the salacious details of her life could come across as mere tabloid fodder; two, her own struggles and tragedies could be undermined by the feeling that when all is said and done, she’s a multi-millionaire with an extremely privileged life, and her travails are not dissimilar to millions of others that don’t have movies made about them. It’s Garbus’ skill that keeps these two competing challenges in check, helped out enormously by Cooper’s skills as interlocutor. As he mentioned at the Q&A, he knows when his mom is being “full of shit,” and the resulting film feels moving and honest without glossing over some of the more problematic aspects of her undoubtedly compelling life.
Finally, Werner Herzog returned to Sundance, having been here several years ago with his remarkable film Grizzly Man. Herzog sets his gaze on technology this time ‘round, with Lo and Behold constructed as a ten chapter examination of the Internet. Tackling both positive and negative elements of his subject with the inimitable, sardonic Herzog style, there’s an inherent pleasure in simply letting the man traipse through a given subject, picking out various pieces and finding interest, humour and horror in the disparate elements. He looks at how videogamers help cure cancer and how a family suffers due to a leak of a horrifying image. The most Herzogian moments may be when he gets the scientists and engineers—-most prominently Elon Musk—to look at the future or when he visits a small group of people that are living near a radio telescope in the belief that by shielding themselves off from electromagnetic radiation they’re improving their health. As always, Herzog lets these colourful characters play themselve out without overt commentary. If Lo and Behold is not his finest work, it’s still a delightful showcase of Herzog’s now well-honed style.