Update: Truth In Cinema: Docs At Sundance

UPDATE: Brett Morgan’s Chicago 10 will be coming out in select theatres soon, catch up on more info about the film here [www.participantproductions.com].

Brett Morgen

Park City, Jan 19. Last night the festival kicked off with Brett Morgen’s documentary CHICAGO 10, a rollicking remembrance of the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and the trial against the revolutionary figures whom the US government tried to hold accountable. Besides the obvious political echoes (the escalation of troops for an unpopular foreign war, an unresponsive party machine), the film speaks to the state of things cinematic as well. Rather than a cut-and-dried historical recounting (with appropriate archival footage and photography), Morgen pulled in name actors (Nick Nolte, Roy Schneider, Mark Ruffalo) to voice the court transcripts for animated recreation of the trial.

Brett Morgen

On stage with director Brett Morgen and Festival Director Geoff Gilmore for a press conference at the Egyptian Theater, Robert Redford remembered the festival’s own revolutionary response in making the opening night film a documentary: “We really are making a statement about what we feel about the importance of documentary.”

Four years ago the festival reaffirmed their dedication to the documentary form by expanding their programming to include a “World Cinema Competition: Documentary.” But what is the difference between American independent documentaries and those made internationally? We asked Cara Mertes, the former Executive Director of POV [www.pbs.org] on PBS and now the Director of the Sundance Documentary Program, what this year’s crop says about the current state of documentary filmmaking, both here and abroad.

Mertes confesses that simple generalization will inevitably be misleading: “The idea that US doc makers are hewing to a more traditional three act character-based structure or a more tightly constructed story might be partially true… but then you see something like Brett Morgen’s CHICAGO 10, Jason Kohn’s MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) or Jon Else’s WONDERS ARE MANY.” Overall there are some telling points of comparison. “There is perhaps a more broadly evident sense of lyricism and a tendency to the poetic in the international work,” observers Mertes, “which you can note in everything from THE CASTLE to ACCIDENTE to BAJO JUAREZ, even when they are attempting to cover social issues of some kind.”

While there are subtle stylistic and narrative differences between American and international docs, Mertes notices certain things connects many of the films and filmmakers: “There is an undercurrent of war or conflict and its aftermath that touches many of the docs in the festival overall.” As for the documentary style, Mertes notes, “there is a flowering of experimentation within the genre and a richness of content and formal innovation that is global. Many US doc filmmakers worked internationally, and many international doc makers work in the same character-based tradition as the US ones –I believe some years ago it replaced personal-essay documentary as the dominant storytelling approach. Indeed, documentaries globally are mixing it up with fictional techniques and displacing any sense that there is a predictable boundary between film as art, non-fiction and fiction.”

From a more commercial point of view, Liz Ogilvie, Head of Programming for Docurama Film [docurama.com], notes a different distinction. “In the American section,” comments Ogilvie, “you see lots of returning filmmakers, people like Jessica Yu, Marco Williams, Rory Kennedy. In the world cinema section, that are a lot of new faces, people whom I am very interested in seeing what they’ll bring to the documentary table.”

Peter Bowen

Senior Editor, Filmmaker Magazine