Focus on Festivals

From Aliens to AOC, Sundance Docs Brought Down the House

Report on documentaries from the 2019 Sundance Film Festivals

Knock Down the House
Photo by Rachel Lears, courtesy of The Sundance Institute


As per tradition here at POV, we take a look at some of the dozens of non-fiction films that played in the wilds of Park City at the Sundance Film festival. [Check out 2018’s report here.] This year continued to see a remarkably diverse slate, from social activist works to awe inspiring looks at historical events. Many of the films below were the most celebrated by critics and audiences alike, even if the some of the festival prizes sometimes leaned towards metatextual concerns trumping subject matter over caliber of work.

Sundance remains the preeminent birthplace for the year’s great works of non-fiction, and more than a few reviewed below will almost certainly be declared the finest works of documentary for 2019.

Jawline
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jawline

(dir. Liza Mandelup)

No film at this year’s Sundance was more nightmarish than Liza Mandelup’s look at social media stars and their sycophantic fans. The film follows teen Austyn Tester, broadcasting from his rural Kentucky basement and streaming to his thousands of fans daily his thoughts and emotional parables. This is contrasted with the slick star-making machinery of L.A., where a home full of petulant man-boys gyrates on webcam for the titillation of the twelve year-old girls that send likes and traffic to these “stars.”

Jawline provides a bleak look into the vagaries of fame in the age of Insta, forming a kind of chaste pornographic ecosystem where only the managers last when the talent age out of their window for success. Richly told, with extraordinary access and a keen eye for following the story wherever it leads, Mandelup’s film is both an eye-opening and deeply troubling look into the abyss of online pop culture.

Apollo 11

(dir. Todd Miller)

Glorious. Apollo 11 is a triumph. The film magnificently demonstrates the scope and preposterousness of the quest to land men on the moon and have them return to earth. Using restored footage as well as newly uncovered 70mm imagery that’s been held unprocessed in a vault for over 50 years, this is nothing short of being the Woodstock of space films. Like that famed film, Apollo 11 isn’t simply about the event itself but the culture surrounding it, the various people in the crowd that join in on the launch, the armies of unknown workers assembling the parts or watching control screens in some back room.

Apollo 11
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Neon CNN Films


Apollo 11 is a cinematic delight, with an impressive score and sumptuous visuals. Above all, it’s a supreme documentation of the era, providing insight like few works ever have about this period of exploration. With the promise of an IMAX release tied to this year’s anniversary of the landing, Apollo 11 truly is one of the landmark non-fiction events of day.

Honeyland

Dir. Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Debates can rage about whether Honeyland, this year’s World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, has more elements that were staged than not, but such purity arguments about the epistemological status of documentary can be left for another time. Taken as a travelogue into the deserts of Turkey, the film focuses on the life of a woman caring for her elderly mother and her retinue of bees, extracting their honey while abiding by the edict “half for me, half for them.” This pattern of sustainability is shattered when a rowdy family moves in next door and upends the calm while also providing some much needed human interaction.

Told with a deliberate pace and quiet determination, Honeyland shares a similar mood with its protagonist. The landscape is dry and uninviting, yet by bringing the audience in, we learn to find within a stark beautiful portrait of life in such an environment. Its political message is subtle, its emotional tone far more overt, which makes Honeyland a place we never thought we’d visit. Once we leave, it’s a place not soon forgotten.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Broomfield

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

(dir. Nick Broomfield)

Nick Broomfield has rightfully earned an obnoxious reputation for injecting himself into every story he tells. (Watch his take on Tupac for the most egregious example of this crime.) It’s all the more ironic then that Marianne & Leonard seems to be his most effective turn at having the focus stay largely on the central protagonists, given that there is actually is an intimate connection between filmmaker and subject.

The story of the love between Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen resulted in some of the greatest works of popular culture. The film does a lovely job of presenting the struggling Leonard being buttressed by his exotic and supportive muse Marianne whole making his life warmer on the Greek island of Hydra. The fact that Broomfield himself had a contemporaneous love affair with Marianne, and she was the cause of him pursuing filmmaking, is a fact that the director deals with relatively quickly and without too much distraction.

Thanks to concert footage, interesting interviews, and the magnetism of seeing Cohen on screen, Marianne and Leonard manages to provide the right balance of historical context and new insight into this tenuous idea that an artist needs a muse to kickstart creativity. This is a love story pure and simple, and thankfully Broomfield’s own love for the subject makes him all the more careful to ensure the focus remains pointed to this remarkable woman and the men with which she surrounded herself.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

(dir. Stanley Nelson Jr.)

No two-hour documentary could possibly contain the multitudes of Miles Davis’s talent, but as a general primer on the titanic talent, this PBS documentary does a decent enough job of introducing the performer to a wide audience. From son of a prominent dentist in East St. Louis to trumpeting in the clubs of Manhattan’s 52nd Street, the doc follows Davis as he dabbles in bop, sees his turn with the ground-breaking ensemble album that gives the film its title, as well as through the quintet periods, his fusion era, his moments in a drug-fueled exile, and finally his resuscitation at the end of his career.

The beats of the storyline are familiar to any jazz fan, making for a somewhat rote telling of his tale. It’s only in hearing from the women in Miles’ life that some new insight is provided, making for a far more complex vision of the man behind the myth from those who saw him away from the spotlight. This isn’t to take away the fact that for many Miles is little more than a few muted horn licks heard in passing – the celebration is warranted, even if the subject is deserving of some 20 hour epic to truly get into all that he accomplished.

Without being greedy and wanting for more, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool does a decent enough job of telling his story, introducing to new audiences and reminding fans what this giant of Jazz managed to do over his decades of performance.

David Crosby: Remember My Name
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by AJ Eaton

David Crosby: Remember My Name

(dir. A.J. Eaton)

Rock and roll biopics often lean towards the hagiographic or, worse, milquetoast while providing pat stories of success or recovery that are little more than self-serving commercials. To the immense credit of filmmaker and subject alike, David Crosby: Remember My Name tries valiantly to avoid these pitfalls. Director A.J. Eaton tasks Crosby’s long-time friend Cameron Crowe (a producer on the film) to do the interviews, resulting in some true soul searching from the aging legend looking back on his varied career.

The most telling realization by Crosby is that maybe he’s the asshole, not the hero, of his story – the collaborators closest to him have all actively shunned the man, and there seems to be a real sense that Crosby knows he has done them wrong. There are still moments of celebration, showing the varied periods of the artist’s life and how implausible it is that he’s still around to perform.

From helping to discover Joni Mitchel to his struggles with addiction and the loss of past loves, there’s an obvious wistfulness at play. Yet throughout the film, Crosby refuses to play victim and takes responsibility where required. He reflects on a life that has been rewarding but damaging at same time. It’s a refreshingly honest look only slightly glazed by nostalgia, and with Crowe’s prodding and Crosby’s piercing responses, we’re treated to a rock-doc like few others.

Edge of Democracy
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Orlando Brito

The Edge of Democracy

(dir. Petra Costa)

Petra Costa’s political documentary is like none other, a work both intimate and grand in scope. Her access to the political ruling class of her native Brazil results in a film with incredible access to history in the making, tracing what may well be the dying throes of the country’s experiment in liberal democracy. It’s a film of sophisticated nuance and balance, showing the various factors that are contributing to Brazil’s current fractured state, resulting in the arrest and impeachment of its most recent leaders. Costa’s own family reflects the many paradoxes at play – her mother was a strident activist who was from a family that helped buttressed the oligarchic system of control at the heart of the nation. These various factors that have resulted in corruption both financial and moral set the stage for the current swing back to the right and the disparagement of the dream from those who helped shaped the last few decades.

The Edge of Democracy is a harrowing cautionary tale told with a sense of grandeur. The images mix the beautifully staged with the rawness of handheld captured moments. Journalistically bold, this highly personal, highly political work sheds light on the unique aspects of Brazil’s situation, but equally on the ever-changing landscape that permeates Western systems as forces of change sway populations further and further over the edge of democracy towards the unknown.

Knock Down The House

(Dir. Rachel Lears)

Ostensibly a film about the growing progressive movements in the U.S. attempting to sway the political system in the age of Trump, director Rachel Lears and her team were in the right place at the right time to follow the rise of a superstar in the making.

Knock Down the House follows Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin as they bring their own stories to bear, women united in a quest to bring progressive ideas to their parties. Yet it’s that bartender from the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who leaps from the narrative and shows in direct ways how her charisma and political acumen will help define the next generation of Democrats.

It’s easy to see how AOC has become iconic so quickly. Her ease on camera is preternatural and her ability to overcome a dominant player in the Democratic Party is indicative of her savvy. The film does little to challenge the mythmaking – follow-up questions are few from those around the subjects, and this doc is almost entirely celebratory – but to capture this nascent political movement as it emerges is no small feat, making this feel-good film an obvious candidate for enthusiastic audience responses. (Unsurprisingly, House won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary.)


Knock Down The House — Early Teaser from Jubilee Films on Vimeo.

Midnight Traveller

(dir. Hassan Fazili)

There are many stories to come out of the conflict in Afghanistan, and many more regarding the plight of refugees from areas of conflict, but few have been as harrowing and effective as Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveller. Shot over a period of years on mobile phones, it traces the Fazili family’s escape from their native country into Europe.

What sets the story apart is that Fazili was forced to leave because of a film he made. This is the escape of a filmmaker because of an earlier film – one where the subject was assassinated by the Taliban in retribution for the work – making the stakes somehow even more relatable to a festival audience. The up-and-downs of the journey are often heartbreaking, especially when what seems like a straightforward journey is marred by violence and betrayal. The film refuses to shy away from moments of doubt or even anger between family members, all while trying desperately to simply escape from their circumstances. Despite the simple equipment capturing the imagery, this migration tale does have substantial cinematic impact, and thanks to this filmmaking family, we’re treated to a unique, personal insight into the refugee crisis and all that it embodies.

Shooting the Mafia

(dir. Kim Longinotto)

Kim Longinotto turns her lens on Letizia Battaglia, an 83-year-old photographer who helped document the violence that has plagued her native Sicily. As one of the first photojournalists to cover the brutal mafia wars, Battagliia has become a fixture in local society, praised for her outspoken nature and keen eye. Unfortunately, Longinotto’s own work seems jumbled and uncertain, and never fully comes to grips with a subject who is admittedly reticent to truly open up about her work and passions. Jumping from era to era, the film never quite coalesces into a coherent portrait, resulting in a doc that is often more frustrating than illuminating.

This is all the more problematic as the subject seems ripe for a rich investigation – how the mafia itself used these tableaus of violence to send a message, in turn both manipulating and feeding off the media’s interest. Instead, Shooting the Mafia affords a genial if unremarkable look at a figure surely deserving of a better film by which her story should be told.

The Disappearance of My Mother
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Disappearance of My Mother

(dir. Beniamino Barrese)

It would be easy to dismiss ahead of time Beniamino Barrese’s portrayal of his mother, the iconic model and activist Benedetta Barzini, as a strangely oedipal fascination that lacks any outward perspective. Yet we’re instead treated to a unique look at a subject who, for very compelling reasons, is reticent to have cameras pointed at her, aware like few others of the power of the lens to manipulate and obfuscate in equal measure.

Barzini’s story is in itself fascinating – far more than a puppet to be played by photographers, her astute political views and continued role in educating young people about the insidious power of imagery is itself extremely compelling. When a woman whose career has been firmly in the spotlight admits to wanting to leave, to be rid of being seen any longer, the film takes on its most poignant angle, especially with respect to a son who has spent most of his life filming his mother in some quest to get to the heart of their relationship.

The film works best when the tensions between son and mother evoke the same sensations that exist within Barzini’s wish to parade on the runway and run away forever from sight. The Disappearance of My Mother is a warm look at a fascinating character, but more than that, it’s a film that consistently interrogates its entire reason for being and consistently buts up against a subject’s desire to no longer be an object of focused. It’s compelling as a film about a mother’s desire to help her son with his project at illuminating his mother’s remarkable contributions to culture.

Hail Satan?
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Naiti Gmez

Hail Satan?

(dir. Penny Lane)

Leave it to Penny Lane (Our Nixon, Nuts!) to provide such a charming, warm and inviting look at the demonic denizens of The Satanic Temple. Fronted by a spokesperson calling himself Lucien Greaves, this humanist, anti-theistic group uses the trapping of organized religion to call for tolerance, the sanctity of science, and insisting upon qualities of empathy, benevolence, and freedom.

Lane’s skepticism is refreshing as she interviews her subjects, and the film does justice not only to the platform of this group but also to those aghast at their behaviour. The most telling elements are the apparent schism between those working within a system to manage change and those using the very tenets of anti-religiosity to further push at societal norms, eschewing political or legal strictures as much as they fight against establishment sects.

The question mark in the title of Hail Satan? title is telling, as Lane isn’t quite sure what to make of pigs ceremonially impaled on stakes or the screeches of distorted metal music. (As is the audience.) Yet the arguments regarding the “Christian supremacy” taking hold in the U.S.A., combined with the surrealism of modern Salem merging with the fact that monumental reflections of religiosity are inextricably linked to movie tie-ins, make for quite an engaging ride into this alternative netherworld. This community of like-minded individuals gathering under a Baphomet to decry the disintegrating separation of church from state is a welcoming sight. Lane’s film does wonders to shine light into this darkness.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

(dir. Alex Gibney)

On one level, this is yet another film from Alex Gibney, a documentarian who seems to churn out one work after another that somehow manage to aggrandize their subjects or provide frustratingly incomplete investigations into their subject matter. Yet despite Gibney’s usual proclivity towards hagiography or blind anger, there’s something truly remarkable about The Inventor, perhaps because of the way it reflects negatively on the very act of mythmaking itself.

It helps that the story of Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes is almost too good to be true. A wide-eyed young woman who dropped out of Stanford to help change medical diagnostics forever, her rise proved Icarus-like, with almost the entirety of her enterprise built upon lies. Gibney traces both this story and how it reflects upon a changing Silicon Valley where such bold promises really have often come true. Allusions to Steve Jobs are plenty (a subject of another, lesser Gibney project), and between the lines you can almost see that there’s room to draw the conclusion that maybe the messianic glorification of these CEOs is part of the poison in this area of business growth. Similarly, Gibney gently chides compatriots such as Errol Morris and Michael Moore, similar celebrity documentarians who also dance on either side of the lines when it comes to fueling public debate and shaping ideas.

Yet it’s the inventor herself that proves the most inscrutable, seemingly blind to her own faults and, in the words of one participant, having the tragic flaw of believing her own bullshit. Gibney too seems to have at last learned that lesson, and by pricking a few of his own proclivities we are treated to a film that gets to the heart of how the cold facts of science and our emotional desire for success are often at odds. For gadgets, this is mere inconvenience, but here, where the Valley turns its sights to life and death, the outcome is all the more tragic.

Ask Dr. Ruth
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by David Paul Jacobson

Ask Dr. Ruth

(dir. Ryan White)

It would be truly churlish to decry a film which revels in the pleasure of spending time with a woman who herself dedicated a life to the expansion of pleasure for millions in her audience. Dr. Westheimer’s own story is told sympathetically, using animation to illustrate a childhood marred by the Holocaust, finding refuge in an isolated Swiss orphanage. From there she worked her way to become the leading popular voice for sexual health discourse over the last few decades, parlaying her unique character into an improbable stardom.

At the age of 90, she appears even more Yoda-like, sagely speaking of STDs and the like to new generations of fans. Ask Dr. Ruth captures her in the Washington Heights apartment she’s called home for decades, finding within an immigrant community a home that ties her to her own journey from Germany to America.

Interesting elements are brought up, including a granddaughter who questions whether the good doctor should call herself a feminist, showing how uneasily categorized this character is. As celebration of a remarkable life, the film does its subject justice, revelling in the warmth and generosity of spirit that this naughty nonagenarian continues to exude.

Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary

(dir. Ben Berman)

I have a soft spot for documentaries that revel in tenacity, following the story where it leads and allowing the oddness of real life to interfere with original intentions. What started out as Ben Berman turning the camera onto a dying magician soon turns into a metatextual examination of the limitations of the documentary form itself, and how an illusionist is essentially a professional manipulator, making for the most slippery of subjects.

A great deal of the fun that the Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary provides comes from the twists and turns, so it’s best to go in as cold as possible. Suffice it to say there are allusions to everything from Tickled to Man Bites Dog, twisting what should be a relatively straightforward tale to being one about hapless filmmakers thrust reluctantly into to the center of their own project.

Told with acerbic humour, Berman’s film has more than enough bite, unafraid to confront its own limitations or those of its subject. It plays at times as part thriller, part sick joke, all entwined into the weird and wonderful world of a meth-smoking man who was supposed to be dead a half decade ago. We’re left with a rare portrait of an artist, painted by another equally unsure of his own role in perpetuating lies or maybe, in the end, getting to a deeper truth than he ever expected to find.

Memory: The Origins of Alien
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Dan O’Bannon

Memory: The Origins of Alien

(dir. Alexandre O. Philippe)

Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous film, 78/52, gave an in-depth look at the famous shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho, illustrating how a simple sequence could be seen from multiple perspectives. The chest-burster sequence in Ridley Scott’s Alien is almost as iconic, and Memory goes into great depth to how this indelible moment of horror saw the light of day. To Philippe’s credit, this film is much wider in scope, dealing with fundamental aspects of storytelling that underpin Alien’s narrative and visual style. Instead of relying entirely on well-tread tales from Ridley Scott or H.R. Giger, Philippe looks more deeply into screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s own obsessions, revealing not only references to 50s’ horror and the works of Lovecraft but to even more ancient allusions.

At its best Memory, serves as a template for a better understanding of cinema itself, illustrating through scene breakdowns and thematic debates how the very act of wrestling with the meaning and impact of art occurs. It’s a film that helps illuminate its subject while also illustrating the way that such illumination is conducted, making this the best of Philippe’s remarkable run of non-fiction films.