Brandon's Sundance 2010 Reviews: Documentary Edition Pt 1
by Brandon Lee Tenney
January 25, 2010
When I attend a film festival, I often gravitate towards the documentaries being screened rather than the narrative features. Of course, I see tons of narratives, but I do my best to keep a high ratio of docs on my schedule for the very reason that I already see tons of narrative stories during the year anyway. It's very rare for any documentary to see a wide release. There aren't a whole lot of Michael Moores or Al Gores out there. For some really spectacular docs, they never even get a limited release. At film festivals, though, there are always a good amount of docs to choose from. This is especially true for the Sundance Film Festival.
Thus far, I've seen three feature-length documentaries and one short form doc. What's becoming evident -- especially when related to the documentaries -- is that this year's fest's theme is a clear force at the core of these films. That theme is: Rebel. All four docs capture their own form of rebellion in interesting, if not always successful, ways. So with that I'm presenting four reviews for four different documentaries I've seen.
On Sundance's opening night here in Park City, I caught Shorts Program I. Along with Spike Jonze's short I'm Here (that reviewed here) and two international short narratives, Rory Kennedy's The Fence premiered. This thirty-six minute documentary explores the sociological, environmental, political, economic, and personal effects of the United States's decision to build a 700-mile long fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the staggering cost of over $3.1 billion, Kennedy lampoons the decision, the decision makers, and the fence itself in turn. There are several great satiric moments and the information presented is dynamic and interesting, but The Fence suffers from a severe case of bloat. It's overlong, which, for a short, is not a good thing. There are so many threads tackled within the film that it ends up feeling more like a cork board inside a bus station: tons of snippets all saying their own thing while slightly overlapping to form a cohesive whole. It's tonally uneven, shifting from startlingly serious to lighthearted and off-the-cuff. Its presentation is slick, though. And it's certainly worth the DVR space when HBO releases it.
Brandon's Sundance Rating: 6 out of 10
The Shock Doctrine
This documentary hailing from the United Kingdom is based on Naomi Klein's book of the same name. The Shock Doctrine attempts to explain the rise of disaster capitalism: the exploitation of moments of crisis in vulnerable countries by larger, more powerful governments and corporate big business. The topic as well as the film is a heady experience. There's a lot to take in and even more so to analyze afterward. The film traces the doctrine's origins to the radical theories of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and goes about delving into the effects of said theories across the world over the past forty years. From Pinochet's Chile to Yeltsin's Russia to Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain to the more recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the film explains Friedman's not-so-invisible hand in them all. Such crises as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 are also explored and re-appropriated through the lens of The Shock Doctrine.
Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross make heavy use of archival footage, slick info-graphics, and a recorded lecture given by Naomi Klein about her theory. It's extremely well made and well presented. Viewing these historical events through this fresh lens is akin to re-watching a film after knowing the end's twist. The doc is fearless when tackling controversial viewpoints on generally one-sided topics. It's harrowing as well, displaying governments (mostly the US's) taking such advantage of war-torn, shock-laden, paralyzed nations that have undergone one disaster or another in order to implement the government most suited to the American corporate structure. Disaster capitalism provides the opportunity for very large profits for very large governments while decimating the country it's occurring in all but completely. It's presented as the concept of mass torture, of mass shock. It's compelling information.
The film packs quite a punch in its 86 minute run time. When it concludes, though, the audience is left without much indication of what we, the now informed, can do to fight against this wide-spread shock treatment. This is a theme I'm noticing throughout the documentaries that I've seen in recent days: a lack of certainty on how to move forward that's indicative of our contemporary and future uncertain times. Ironically, though, what the film presents as most detestable is used within the film itself. This doc is shocking and tended toward some of the same patterns it admonishes in the film. Overall, it's a fascinating documentary that will hopefully find more eager eyes and open minds.
Brandon's Sundance Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Enemies of the People
After finishing Enemies of the People, I was conflicted. Within this doc is such an interesting, incredible story, but the documentary itself, its presentation and the filmmaking, is so amateurish that it stands in opposition to its great story. Over the course of ten years, Thet Sambath unearthed the untold tale of the Khmer Rouge and the brutal Killing Fields of Cambodia during the late 1970s. Sambath gains the trust of the Khmer Rouge's second in command, now in his eighties, and succeeds in documenting this lost piece of his culture and his family's history. Sambath's own mother and father fell victim to the very man he's now interviewing, though his lack of vengeance is saintlike. Again, the story is so very interesting, but it becomes very repetitive as it begins to fold over and over on to itself. It's incredible, no matter what the result, to see one man's ten-year struggle finally make it on screen, though.
Brandon's Sundance Rating: 5 out of 10
The Tillman Story
Enter my most-anticipated film of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev (of My Kid Could Paint That fame), this documentary lays out the story of Patrick Tillman, professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals turned enlisted Army Ranger whose tragic, untimely death has been shrouded in conspiracy. If you watched the news at all last decade, you'll know the name Pat Tillman. Though, in the news, you probably know the propagandistic version of Pat Tillman. The one whose death was turned into a political, patriotic symbol by the United States government. Within the film, Bar-Lev features candid interviews of Tillman's family, friends, and fellow Rangers attempting to elucidate some kind of truth mixed amid the deceit.
The documentary is very good. It's able to make a comment without becoming preachy, and as Bar-Lev did with My Kid Could Paint That, the film is most powerful when its subjects are simply speaking for themselves. Overall, however, this story, and by association, this film is maddening. It plays like a political thriller complete with seedy dealings and lies and grand subterfuge. But it's very real. Watching Donald Rumsfeld lie on camera is blood-boiling. Watching Dannie Tillman, Pat Tillman's mother, attempt with overwhelming futility to combat the U.S. government to uncover the truth about her son's death while trying to reclaim his identity is heartbreaking.
Bar-Lev made The Tillman Story with the uninitiated in mind. Because I've followed the story since 2004, much of the information presented wasn't new to me. That, however, did not make it any less impacting. The interviews are splendid windows into the very definition of confusion and despair and resilience. When the video of Tillman's brother's speech at Tillman's funeral is played and he says into the mic "He's fucking dead!" it's haunting. Though I can't help but wish the film had one additional section. A section that would have pushed the issue further, challenged the subject, stuck it to the man in a Michael Moore-like style.
As the doc stands, it ends on a note of hopelessness and dissipated anger. Though the Tillman family is still resilient, the U.S. government is just too big. With this doc, though, Pat Tillman can be remembered how his family wishes him to be, not how the propaganda dictates he should be. It's a film that needs to be seen by as many people as possible. A maddening experience, but a necessary one.
Brandon's Sundance Rating: 8.5 out of 10