28 Docs Compete at Sundance

Kate Plays Christine
Photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.


By Pat Mullen

28 documentaries are in competition at next year’s Sundance Film Festival. Yesterday’s line-up announcement for Sundance 2016 includes 16 documentaries in the US Documentary Competition and 12 docs in the World Cinema Competition. Among the titles are a new film from Actress director Robert Greene, whose Kate Plays Cristine follows an actress as she prepares to play late news anchor Christine Chubbuck, whose on-air suicide inspired the 1976 film Network; NUTS! from Our Nixon director Penny Lane, which tells of a goat testicle impotence cure that built an empire; and Marley director Kevin Macdonald’s Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, which tells the story of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang and lands the festival’s Day One slot. Perhaps the most intriguing title of the line-up Holy Hell, which withholds a director credit in the programme notes that describe a personal archival doc that reveals a story about a teacher-student relationship.

Unfortunately, the line-up offers little Canadian content as only one Canadian documentary appears on the list. That doc is Shimon Dotan’s The Setllers, a co-production between Canada, France, Israel, and Germany. Matt Johnson (The Dirties) lands the only other Canuck title at the fest with his new drama Operation Avalanche in the Next programme

U.S. Documentary Competition:

Audrie & Daisy / U.S.A. (Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk) — After two high school girls in different towns are sexually assaulted by boys they consider friends, online bullying leads each girl to attempt suicide. Tragically, one dies. Assault in the social media age is explored from the perspectives of the girls and boys involved, as well as their torn-apart communities. World Premiere

Author: The JT LeRoy Story / U.S.A. (Director: Jeff Feuerzeig) — As the definitive look inside the mysterious case of 16-year-old literary sensation JT LeRoy—a creature so perfect for his time that if he didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent him—this is the strangest story about story ever told. World Premiere

The Bad Kids / U.S.A. (Directors: Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe) — At a remote Mojave Desert high school, extraordinary educators believe that empathy and life skills, more than academics, give at-risk students command of their own futures. This coming-of-age story watches education combat the crippling effects of poverty in the lives of these so-called “bad kids.” World Premiere

Gleason / U.S.A. (Director: Clay Tweel) — At the age of 34, Steve Gleason, former NFL defensive back and New Orleans hero, was diagnosed with ALS. Doctors gave him two to five years to live. So that is what Steve chose to do: Live—both for his wife and newborn son and to help others with this disease. World Premiere

Holy Hell / U.S.A. (Director: undisclosed) — Just out of college, a young filmmaker joins a loving, secretive, and spiritual community led by a charismatic teacher in 1980s West Hollywood. Twenty years later, the group is shockingly torn apart. Told through two decades of the filmmaker’s archival materials, this is their story. World Premiere

How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change) / U.S.A. (Director: Josh Fox) — Do we have a chance to stop the most destructive consequences of climate change, or is it too late? Academy Award-nominated director Josh Fox (Gasland) travels to 12 countries on six continents to explore what we have to let go of—and all of the things that climate can’t change. World Premiere

Jim / U.S.A. (Director: Brian Oakes) — The public execution of American conflict journalist James Foley captured the world’s attention, but he was more than just a man in an orange jumpsuit. Seen through the lens of his close childhood friend, Jim moves from adrenaline-fueled front lines and devastated neighborhoods of Syria into the hands of ISIS. World Premiere

Kate Plays Christine / U.S.A. (Director: Robert Greene) — This psychological thriller follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida television host who committed suicide on air in 1974. Christine’s tragic death was the inspiration for Network, and the mysteries surrounding her final act haunt Kate and the production. World Premiere

Kiki / U.S.A., Sweden (Director: Sara Jordenö) — Through a strikingly intimate and visually daring lens, Kiki offers a riveting, complex insight into a safe space created and governed by LGBTQ youths of color, who are demanding happiness and political power. The film is an exciting coming-of-age story about agency, resilience, and the transformative art form of voguing. World Premiere

Life, Animated / U.S.A. (Director: Roger Ross Williams) — Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who could not speak for years, slowly emerged from his isolation by immersing himself in Disney animated movies. Using these films as a roadmap, he reconnects with his loving family and the wider world in this emotional coming-of-age story. World Premiere

Newtown / U.S.A. (Director: Kim A. Snyder) — After joining the ranks of a growing club no one wants to belong to, the people of Newtown, Connecticut, weave an intimate story of resilience. This film traces the aftermath of the worst mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history as the traumatized community finds a new sense of purpose. World Premiere

NUTS! / U.S.A. (Director: Penny Lane) — The mostly true story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric genius who built an empire with his goat-testicle impotence cure and a million-watt radio station. Animated reenactments, interviews, archival footage, and one seriously unreliable narrator trace his rise from poverty to celebrity and influence in 1920s America. World Premiere

Suited / U.S.A. (Director: Jason Benjamin) — Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn tailoring company, makes custom suits for a growing legion of gender-nonconforming clients. World Premiere

Trapped / U.S.A. (Director: Dawn Porter) — American abortion clinics are in a fight for survival. Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws are increasingly being passed by states that maintain they ensure women’s safety and health, but as clinics continue to shut their doors, opponents believe the real purpose of these laws is to outlaw abortion. World Premiere

Uncle Howard / U.S.A., United Kingdom (Director: Aaron Brookner) — Howard Brookner’s first film, Burroughs: The Movie, captured the cultural revolution of downtown New York City in the early ’80s. Twenty-five years after his promising career was cut short by AIDS, his nephew sets out to discover Howard’s never-before-seen films to create a cinematic elegy about his childhood idol. World Premiere

Weiner / U.S.A. (Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg) — With unrestricted access to Anthony Weiner’s New York City mayoral campaign, this film reveals the human story behind the scenes of a high-profile political scandal as it unfolds, and offers an unfiltered look at how much today’s politics is driven by an appetite for spectacle. World Premiere

World Cinema Documentary Competition:

All These Sleepless Nights / Poland (Director: Michal Marczak) — What does it mean to be truly awake in a world that seems satisfied to be asleep? Kris and Michal push their experiences of life and love to a breaking point as they restlessly roam the streets of Warsaw in search for answers. World Premiere

A Flag Without a Country / Iraq (Director: Bahman Ghobadi) — This documentary follows the very separate paths of singer Helly Luv and pilot Nariman Anwar from Kurdistan, both in pursuit of progress, freedom, and solidarity. Both individuals are a source of strength to their society, which perpetually deals with the harsh conditions of life, war, and ISIS attacks. North American Premiere

Hooligan Sparrow / China, U.S.A. (Director: Nanfu Wang) — Traversing southern China, a group of activists led by Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow, protest a scandalous incident in which a school principal and a government official allegedly raped six students. Sparrow becomes an enemy of the state, but detentions, interrogations and evictions can’t stop her protest from going viral. World Premiere

The Land of the Enlightened / Belgium (Director: Pieter-Jan De Pue) — A group of Kuchi children in Afghanistan dig out old Soviet mines and sell the explosives to child workers in a lapis lazuli mine. When not dreaming of an Afghanistan after the American withdrawal, Gholam Nasir and his gang control the mountains where caravans are smuggling the blue gemstones. World Premiere

The Lovers and the Despot / United Kingdom (Directors: Robert Cannan, Ross Adam) — Following the collapse of their glamorous romance, a celebrity director and his actress ex-wife are kidnapped by movie-obsessed dictator Kim Jong-il. Forced to make films in extraordinary circumstances, they get a second chance at love—but only one chance at escape. World Premiere

Plaza de la Soledad / Mexico (Director: Maya Goded) — For over 20 years, photographer Maya Goded has intimately documented the lives of a close community of prostitutes in Mexico City. With dignity and humor, these women now strive for a better life — and the possibility of true love. World Premiere

The Settlers / France, Canada, Israel, Germany (Director: Shimon Dotan) — The first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, The Settlers is a historical overview, geopolitical study, and intimate look at the people at the core of the most daunting challenge facing Israel and the international community today. World Premiere

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang / U.S.A. (Director: Kevin Macdonald) — Having reached the pinnacle of the global art world with his signature explosion events and gunpowder drawings, world-famous Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang is still seeking more. We trace his rise from childhood in Mao’s China and his journey to attempt to realize his lifelong obsession, Sky Ladder. World Premiere. DAY ONE FILM

Sonita / Germany, Iran, Switzerland (Director: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) — If 18-year-old Sonita had a say, Michael Jackson and Rihanna would be her parents and she’d be a rapper who tells the story of Afghan women and their fate as child brides. She finds out that her family plans to sell her to an unknown husband for $9,000. North American Premiere

We Are X / United Kingdom, U.S.A., Japan (Director: Stephen Kijak) — As glam rock’s most flamboyant survivors, X Japan ignited a musical revolution in Japan during the late ’80s with their melodic metal. Twenty years after their tragic dissolution, X Japan’s leader, Yoshiki, battles with physical and spiritual demons alongside prejudices of the West to bring their music to the world. World Premiere

When Two Worlds Collide / Peru (Directors: Heidi Brandenburg, Mathew Orzel) — An indigenous leader resists the environmental ruin of Amazonian lands by big business. As he is forced into exile and faces 20 years in prison, his quest reveals conflicting visions that shape the fate of the Amazon and the climate future of our world. World Premiere