Every year the Sundance Film Festival held in Park City, Utah presents independent films from around the world. While some of these features often come with studio backing, the documentaries, for the most part, are more independent of the studio system. Often their subject matter is controversial. While Sundance 2011 had a couple of not-so-independent documentaries (e.g. Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold), there were plenty of bold, important, nonfiction features.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – Told with an occasional Swedish bent, Göran Hugo Olsson's moving documentary uses rare archival footage of leading African American activists, artists and thinkers to reexamine the evolution of the Black Power Movement. As timeless as ever, the words of Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Angela Davis still hold considerable weight after all these years of struggle.
Crime After Crime – In 1983 Deborah Peagler was sentenced to 25 years for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. During her incarceration, a California law paved the way for two rookie attorneys to come to her aid. When they found evidence that could set her free, some powerful people in the Corrections Department did not care for being corrected and stuck to their guns. Purchased by the Oprah Winfrey Network during the festival, this documentary is an emotional roller coaster ride through the California court system.
Hot Coffee – Speaking of corrupt legal practices, Susan Saladoff uses the notorious McDonald's coffee lawsuit as the genesis for her tragic tale into the corporate takeover of the courts. A scalding documentary on tort reform, business-friendly judges, the public relations machine hired by corporations to demonize a victim, and the general ignorance of a public frequently up in arms about "frivolous" lawsuits, one should not be surprised that the machinations to damn this documentary are all ready to target Saladoff and the film upon release. Unfortunately, unlike many of the progressive documentaries at Sundance, this one does not seem to offer much hope.
The Interrupters – Speaking of hope, in the latest film by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), former gang members attempt to interrupt the violence in their Chicago territories by any peaceful means necessary. This violence includes things like: two brothers who want to kill each other, a teenager seething with anger, another ready for revenge. Gaining impressive access into the lives of his subjects, this 190-minute documentary is at once personal and epic.
Miss Representation – In her 85-minute documentary, writer/director Jennifer Siebel Newsom makes it clear that females, now more than ever, are objectified in mainstream media. She documents the ways that this is reaching and teaching a whole new generation of women that their value rests in the eyes of others. One of the damning results is that more girls are depressed. Not only are they depressed, girls are learning to compete against other girls—usually for some guy's attention. Fortunately, the documentary, which has been picked up for distribution, offers ways in which women, if they want to improve their lot in this country (as well as their daughters'), can start banding together and getting actively involved in politics.
Position Among the Stars – Winner of the Special Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2011, previous Sundance winner (Shape of the Moon, 2005) Leonard Retel Helmrich takes us into the Jakarta slums of Indonesia. Focusing on the Shamsuddin Family, Retel's "single shot cinema" continues his microcosmic illustrations of a country filled with corruption, riddled with addiction and conflicts between religions, an increasing disparity of wealth, and how one family copes with the modernization of a country. Amazingly insightful and made with remarkably unobtrusive filmmaking, the documentary is a perfect example of cinéma vérité.
Sing Your Song – Susanne Rostock's documentary is a glowing tribute to entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. Inspired by the radical African American actor Paul Robeson and his experiences in a segregated country, Belafonte broke barriers in Hollywood the way he did in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—sometimes bringing the two together toward significant social progress.
Women Art Revolution – In the 1960s, the feminist art movement exploded to confront the patriarchal tide that had swept America into the illegal invasion of Vietnam, young soldiers into early graves, and women into continued second class citizenship. From there, one of the most important art movements in American history has taken on new and challenging forms. Forty years in the making, writer-director-producer-editor Lynn Hershman Leeson (Strange Culture) shot hundreds of hours of interviews with artists, historians, curators, and critics who have made or supported the movement. This is top choice material about feminism, art, resistance, and women who are unapologetically non-submissive to a sexist society.
John Esther writes about culture and politics via cinema. His work has appeared in Z Magazine and numerous other publications.