Fighting The Man: 9 Anti-Establishment Sundance Documentaries

the cove

The very idea of independent cinema is anti-establishment. Making a movie free of Hollywood’s influence, and without the benefit of its financial resources, can be a truly revolutionary act. But some indie movies go farther than the rest to critique, satirize or outright demolish the status quo. These 9 movies brought counterculture to the masses.

1. American Dream
Returning to the subject of the American labor movement more than a decade after her landmark documentary Harlan Country, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple turned her camera on a meatpackers strike against the Hormel Foods Corporation. There are layers of “the establishment” here—not only the ownership of the company, but also the national leadership of the union, who did not support the strike.

2. Chicago 10
The true story of a bunch of activists and their 1969 trial over the protests they staged during the 1968 Democratic National Convention became an iconoclastic documentary by filmmaker Bret Morgen. Morgen blended archival footage with animated dramatizations of the original court transcripts to create the doc.

3. Crude
Director Joe Berlinger took on Big Oil in this documentary about a $27 billion lawsuit brought by 30,000 Ecuadorians against Chevron for the environmental problems they claimed were caused by the company’s Lago Agrio oil field. Berlinger’s anti-establishment tale eventually put him in the position to take on the establishment himself, as Chevron later tried to force him to hand over all 600 hours of his raw footage.

4. Frat House
This infamous documentary uncovered the sleazy practices in one of the cornerstones of the American establishment: the college fraternity. Filmmakers Andrew Gurland and Todd Phillips chronicled the sadistic rituals at several university frat houses—though this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner never aired as intended on HBO after Gurland and Phillips drew accusations of their own sleazy practices, like paying their subjects to reenact hazing scenes in order to give their movie salacious footage.

5. No End in Sight
With the War in Iraq still raging—years after President George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”—director Charles Ferguson revealed the systemic poor planning (or total lack of planning) that characterized the United States’ occupation. Ferguson’s movie, which won a Special Jury Prize at the festival, made its argument against the Bush Administration foreign policy with stunning clarity and, in some small way, brought us a little bit closer to seeing that still-unseeable end.

6. The Corporation
This provocative documentary charts the development of the modern corporate entity and proposes the theory that if corporations were people, their behavior would get them classified as psychopaths. As you might imagine, the business world was not particularly crazy about the movie. Sundance audiences were significantly more favorable—they gave it a World Cinema Audience Award for Documentaries.

7. The Cove
The 2009 Audience Award winner for Best Documentary and eventual Best Documentary winner at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards is credited with raising awareness of the practice of dolphin hunting in Japan. Director Louie Psihoyos and his crew fought with the local authorities to expose this brutal tradition to the world—and continued to fight with the local authorities for several years in order to screen the movie for Japanese audiences.

8. The Red Chapel
A filmmaker and two comedians from Denmark head to North Korea, allegedly in the interest of a performance and a cultural exchange program. In fact, the whole tour is an ingenious ruse to sneak a camera north of the MDL and document life under one of the most restrictive and secretive regimes on the planet. North Korean officials may not have appreciated the joke, but the 2010 World Cinema Jury awarded director Mads Brügger a prize for his mad courage.

9. The Times of Harvey Milk
One of the first great movies in the history of Sundance was this inspiring and devastating portrait of the late Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to substantial public office. Director Rob Epstein’s documentary about Milk showed how an outsider can be an agent of change within the system without sacrificing the ideals that got them there.

For more rebels, check out 10 characters that go against the grain.