Documentaries of Sundance: 2016

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the few international film festivals that promote the cross between art and journalism. It is the largest independent film festival in the United States, celebrating independent artists and their thought-provoking productions. The festival’s popularity has become a source of motivation for artistic inspiration, and independent filmmaking. The 2016 Sundance Festival was no different than previous festivals, showcasing works that exhibited unusual stories of often marginalized people.

Three documentaries “The Land of Enlightened,” “Plaza de la Soledad,” and “The Lovers and the Despot”, focus on unusual stories in some very difficult terrains. “The Land of the Enlightened” documents a band of preteen bandits in rocky northeastern Afghanistan. These armed children often put themselves in perilous situations, removing Soviet era mines to sell as explosives for miners. The film also documents them marauding and stealing precious stones from miners and merchants. As Brandon Harris writes in Al Jazeera, “The film’s artistry is incredible; its ethics, less clear.”

Directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, “The Lovers and the Despot” recounts the kidnapping of a South Korean couple by deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Choi Eun-hee, a popular South Korean actress and her husband, director Shin Sang-ok were coerced with the duty of improving North Korean cinema. Although a great deal of the film documents interviews of Shin Sang-ok, it often cuts back to reels of their time held captive in North Korea. “The Lovers and the Despot” acts as a documentary-thriller of sorts, intertwined with the kidnapped couple’s earnest romance.

In a very intimate portrayal of the daily lives of young women in Mexico City, director Maya Goded delicately showcases the plight of a group of career prostitutes in “Plaza de Soledad.” Throughout the film, the women recall traumatic, and sometimes violent episodes in their lives, all well developing an unbreakable sisterhood.

A handful of films this year focuses on the political and social strife faced by communities in the United States. “Kate Plays Christine,” directed by Robert Greene, narrows in on the subject of performance and acting in the context of the disturbing public suicide of Christine Chubbuck. Chubbuck, a journalist in Florida was frustrated over the media’s excessive coverage of violence and death. She decided to end her life on a live report.

Another film, Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night” confronts the public nightmare of gun violence. As an allusion to the movie theatre shooting in Aurora Colorado, it alternates between the fragmented lives of real people in Sarasota, Florida with a journalistic approach toward the Aurora shootings that took place toward the a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Richard Brody writes in the New Yorker, “The film’s suburban moods are haunted by violence.” Both films depict the ugly realities of gun violence in Florida by overlapping factual tragedies with fictional dramatizations. Sundance Films always leave viewers with an assortment of emotions. The festival values expression, with the strongest documentaries blending the reality with journalism, and artistic dramatizations. Film lovers and socially aware individuals should always look to the Sundance Festival for some deep and engaging cinema. Now that they have screened at Sundance, look out for screenings in neighborhoods near you.

Documentaries on the Red Carpet


Dziga Vertov - Man With a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov – Man With a Movie Camera

Documentaries haven’t always been a fan favorite at the Academy Awards. Audiences are attracted to lavish sets, familiar celebrities, and tear-jerking storylines. But documentary films are not so different from the films we are familiar with, they simply strive to translate life’s raw experiences in a popular format.

Contemporary films are more indebted to the legacy of documentary than we often realize. In the 1920’s and 1920’s, Soviet filmmakers felt so inspired from the vivacity of modern art and rapidly growing cities that they crafted powerful expressions; the avant-doc of The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov is an example. Vertov coined the idea of the “cinematic truth,” emphasizing that the camera is capable of portraying the human experience more accurately than the human eye.

This reliance on the power of the camera has been passed down to documentary filmmakers throughout history. Films today still reflect the creative techniques from primitive documentaries – think of non-narrative approaches in indie films.

The relationship between documentary film and fictional films is often debated – How does editing influence the audience’s perspective? How can one produce a true documentary?

Every year, the Academy Awards looks to highlight some of the best films and award the people who worked hard toward their production.  The first year documentary films were recognized was 1942; during WWII when the usage of raw footage was both a necessary source of information and emotionally shocking. The next year, they split the category in two: short films and feature-length, to better serve the variety of documentary film.

Since the 1940s, the art of documentary has developed dramatically. Filmmakers have moved away from avant-garde, philosophical reflections and aggrandizing propaganda material toward detailed, highly-researched investigations into personal stories. Some of the best examples in the modern documentary canon are Man on a Wire (2008) that evokes the magical personality of Philippe Petit and his endeavor to cross the World Trade Center on a tightrope. This film was awarded an Oscar. In 2012, Searching for Sugarman escalated in popular with its Oscar winning. This soulful documentary tells the tale of Rodriguez, a folk musician popular in South Africa but essentially unknown everywhere else. Many documentaries are effectively informative and purposeful; anyone who has browsed Netflix will understand the plethora of directors that have investigated food policy in the United States and highlighted animal rights around the globe.

Field of Vision

Larger strides are being taken in the documentary industry as award winning director, Laura Poitras launches the ambitious venture, Field of Vision. Partnering with documentary veterans Charlotte Cook and A.J. Schnack, Field of Vision will commission short-form documentaries and make them available, free of charge, online via the Field of Vision streaming website. As large companies like PBD, HBO, and Netflix continue to hot and fund longer, more formal productions, Poitras aims to provide a platform for timely, new stories that stand apart from industry heavyweights.


After taking home an Oscar for her riveting examination of the Edward Snowden case, no one expected Ms. Poitras to become and entrepreneur. However, her new company, sponsored by First Look Media, will provide one-off, first look encounters on numerous topics ranging from homelessness to political strife. Some recognizable industry participants include Michael Moore and “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon. This upcoming Sunday at the 2015 New York Film Festival, Poitras will premier Kirsten Johnson’s “The Above,” Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s “Peace in the Valley,”  and Iva Radivojevic’s “Notes From the Border.” The key difference between Field of Vision projects and standard PBS documentaries lies in each project’s ability to be relevant, current, and serve as an alternative outlet for nonfiction film.

According to A.J. Schnack, the director of a nonfiction film about Kurt Cobain, “[Field of Vision wants] to play in the corner where journalism and documentary overlap.” Filmmakers believe that this new platform will allow them to participate in current debates creatively without the bureaucracy of big name players who require long waiting periods, making the concept of timeliness impossible. Field of Vision also plans to experiment with serialized content, much like “This American Life’s” spinoff, “Serial.”

Even with consistent backing and verbal support, Poitras recognizes difficulties that lie ahead. Online services like YouTube and Vimeo haven been modern powerhouses and central hubs for independent directors and producers. Regardless of competition, Laura Poitras is confident that the aspect of community building will guide Field of Vision to success.

Fandom Documentaries Actually Help Hollywood

With any longstanding Hollywood blockbuster comes an equally robust fanbase. Withstanding the test of time, the 1984 Ghostbusters maintains a relatively large following, prompting a strong female-lead remake slated for summer 2016. After 30 years, fans continue to attend comic conventions dressed as the original characters. “Who you gonna call?!” still receives a resounding answer of “Ghostbusters!” Even from younger generations! In similar fashion, a fandom-based documentary appropriately titled Ghostheads is set to be released in conjunction with the new film. Documentaries like this, which showcase typical, everyday fans actually increases the visibility of not only the original film, but also Hollywood remakes.


Paul Feig’s Ghostheads is described as being “by the fans, about the fans.” Along the same lines, the 1997 Star Trek fan film, Trekkies set the precedent for what it means to truly be a fandom documentary. Trekkies was released in a time when Star Trek was still a relatively niche show. The concept of being a Trekkie became a huge phenomenon that still holds baring today at comic-cons across the country. And yet still, Trekkies introduced a large sector of the population to not only a television show, but also a genre they may have never discovered without it.

In some instances, fandom documentaries create a placeholder when official movie remakes are impossible. Although Back to the Future will never see a remake (according to Robert Zemeckis, “[A remake] can’t happen until both Bob and I are dead.”), fandom documentaries can continue to pump relevance into a stagnate series. As it currently stands, The Lego Movie already has A Lego Brickumentary. In the very near future, perhaps hugely popular film series like X-men and Harry Potter will see fandom documentaries as well.