The Best of Sundance 2009: The Documentaries Have It
It’s Saturday night in Park City and another festival is winding down. The first weekend of the festival is always the most chaotic and crowded. I find the second weekend more pleasant even if it is a bit sad to see things coming to a close. Shuttle buses are less frequent, people more relaxed. For the first time in ten days it is snowing, and with the weather everyone seems to be mellowing out, finding some place to stay warm.
I had a ticket to the Grand Jury Prize Documentary Award winning film - and had settled down into a cozy seat in the Library theater, waiting for the announcement as to which film it would be. I was slightly disappointed to hear it was something I’d seen just yesterday - I’d been hoping to catch something I’d missed - but in hindsight the award makes complete sense: Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public was disturbing but brilliant, a powerful portrait of an internet pioneer with a remarkable vision of the future we are living now. Unlike many of the documentaries that played at Sundance this year, this one (by the director of Dig!) makes inventive and entertaining use of the possibilities of the medium, and was definitely not made for a PBS audience.
I’ve seen just over 30 films here in Park City, at both Sundance and Slamdance, and in my opinion this is the strongest lineup I’ve encountered in the years I’ve been coming to the festival. As usual, the documentaries tend to be among the best that Sundance has to offer. While I was laughing out loud at Black Dynamite, amused and entertained by Larry Fessenden and Ron Perlman’s performances in We Sell the Dead, intrigued by the ideas in Moon and in the even more profound The Clone Returns Home and even brought to tears by Slamdance’s Mississippi Damned, it was the documentary films that will have a lasting impact on my thoughts and attitudes and actions.
I teach environmental ethics at Eckerd College, and think of myself as at least politically active on environmental issues, but it was while watching the intelligent and funny No Impact Man that I really did some serious soul searching about how much I personally contribute to our culture’s negative impact on the Earth.
One of my favorite films of the year (outside of Sundance) was Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke gives a highly celebrated and brilliant performance as a has-been who still wants to make a mark. I was stunned to find in Big River Man a non-fictional counterpart to Rourke’s “The Ram”: Martin Strel, a horseburger-munching overweight and aging alcoholic long distance swimming champion.
First time director Louie Psihoyos created the horrifying and intense The Cove, which documents the dangerous (and illegal) investigation into one of the greatest animal atrocities of our time. Along with the much more conventional but still powerful and cogent End of the Line (about global overfishing), the film convinced me to be much more aware of whether the fish I consume is harvested in a sustainable way.
Dirt! The Movie convinced me that I need to figure out what it will take to turn the sandy lot behind my house into fertile soil and start growing stuff. The Yes Men Fix the World! was both funny and scary, but demonstrates above all that raising awareness and making a difference only takes a bit of creativity and persistence.
My favorite documentary at the festival, however, is not one that felt like a call to action but more like a reminder of the importance of contemplation and awareness. Old Partner is an easy-paced and meditative cinema-verite documentary about an old South Korean man whose dying ox prompts him to reflect upon his own life and his wife to reflect upon their long years of marriage. Seemingly without trying the film manages to be a profound meditation on life and death, on marriage and family, on our relationship with animals and with the land, on changes in the seasons and on the changes that have been wrought in our lifestyles by modern technology. It is a beautiful and moving piece, and while it didn’t get any of the hype of some of the bigger pictures, it had much more heart and mind to it than anything I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the little films like this one that will leave an enduring mark upon me and remind me that Sundance is still a place where unique and profound films from around the world can find an appreciative audience.