When, on Saturday night, the last award was handed out and the applause died down, two very different, very good films had won grand jury prizes at the 25th Sundance Film Festival - one a wrenching tale of South African child advocates from an acclaimed director (and bearing the stamp of approval from Home Box Office), the other a quick-cut, deeply-thought, '90s-era pop culture nugget from a previous Sundance winner (and bearing the producorial stamp of John Battsek).
That Sundance should fete both of these films might come as no surprise. This is, after all, the festival that has, in previous years, brought us AMERICAN TEEN and F.L.O.W., CRAZY LOVE and BANISHED in nearly equal measure.
This then is the split personality of the Sundance Film Festival, where high profile docutainment and Very Important Subjects share top billing. And often, it is the stories of Indiana high schoolers, child prodigy painters, moon astronauts and crossword enthusiasts score first weekend bidding wars and big distribution deals, while the films that seek to shine a light on Darfur or pollution or race relations head home to cobble together a TV deal, a festival strategy and maybe a limited theatrical run.
Save for this year, when no one goes home with that big distribution deal and many of the films in competition already had some kind of release in place. At least six competition films - including World Cinema Grand Jury prize winner ROUGH AUNTIES - are booked to screen on HBO. P.O.V. already has acquired EL GENERAL, winner of the Directing Award, and WILLIAM KUNTSLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE. A&E IndieFilms, which is usually responsible for the big get of the fest, was here once again with Sundance's most poppy concoction, the well-regarded, Vogue documentary THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE from RJ Cutler.
It's probably no surprise that at this year's veteran-heavy Sundance, two Sundance alums should helm the Grand Jury prize winners - Kim Longinotto, the highly-lauded UK filmmaker with two decades of work to her credit, and Ondi Timoner, the outspoken LA director who often seems to have worked two decades on each one of her films. Timoner, in particular, made history with her Grand Jury win, becoming the first filmmaker in Sundance history to win the Grand Jury prize for Documentary twice.
The first time, of course, was 5 years ago, when DIG!, her intimate look at the Brian Jonestown Massacre amidst the indie rock explosion of the late '90s and early '00s, shook up everyone's pre-conceived notions of what music documentaries are supposed to be. In her latest film, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, Timoner again takes us back a decade, but this time the subject is the internet, specifically Josh Harris, an online entrepeneur whose ideas always seem to be a few years ahead of their time (which makes him both a visionary and poorer than he might be).
Like BJM frontman Anton Newcombe, Harris is not a particularly appealing character, but via Timoner's camera, he simultaneously appalls and fascinates. Here is a man who can be cold - as emotionless telling off his dying mother as he is voyeuristically observing sexual semi-violence in a public shower area. Yet his vision of the future - our present Facebook/video chat/blogging/no-holds-barred reality - is dead on, both in what has occurred and why we, as a culture, have opened ourselves up for public display and deconstruction.
The centerpiece of WE LIVE IN PUBLIC is exceptional video footage from 1999's Quiet, an art experiment-cum-television/web pilot that introduced dozens of mostly 20something individuals (many of them artists and bohemians) into an underground bunker, where everything was provided and cameras recorded every movement. Like her years-long following of BMJ for DIG!, Timoner is inside the bunker, camera in hand, watching as alcohol and lack of boundries lead to a bacchanalian inhibition, with Harris as the puppet-master. Not content just to create some pre-"Big Brother" reality show, Harris also forces his inhabitants into brutal interrogations dreamt up by ex-CIA, and these scenes, recorded on the omnipresent video cameras, Harris is quick to note, belong to him and him alone.
In essence, Harris owns the rights to everything that happens inside Quiet - the sex, the boredom, the confessions, the breakdowns - and that very exaggeration of identity ownership says volumes - not just about how we gleefully sign up for social networks, uploading our photos and our status updates, but also about the nature of documentary filmmaking. Sooner or later, everybody has to sign a release.
On the surface then, Longinotto's ROUGH AUNTIES couldn't be more different. Straight away you are presented with the horrors of child molestation, while the dangers faced by children are outlined in a succession of heart-breaking and harrowing episodes (see Nathan Truesdell's review from yesterday). And like many of today's socially relevant films, ROUGH AUNTIES' website is accepting your donations now ("Make a Donation and Become a Rough Auntie!") and, in a bit of a twist, even adopts some AMERICAN TEEN-style character promotion, with each of the five main Aunties getting their own page featuring their own, self-penned bios. At the screening I saw, one of the Aunties implored for someone in the crowd to give them a large donation.
All of this is usually going to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, my issues with filmanthropy and cause-whoring (sign our petition! join our campaign!) are well-known to regular readers of this blog. And yet, and yet, I acknowledge that there will be those, particularly when the film airs on television, who will want to find that website and give the Aunties their credit card and why shouldn't they be able to find that information without difficulty?
Why am I, in the end, willing to overlook the pleas for money? Is it because the work that the Aunties, through their grassroots organization Operation Bobbi Bear, do is so vital and important? Is it because I have such respect for Longinotto? Or because of my friendship with producers Teddy Liefer and Paul Taylor (who is, full disclosure, one of the filmmakers involved in our upcoming CONVENTION film)?
Frankly it's because until that final credit roll (or that website glance or Q&A pass-the-hat), there's not a hint of any of this in the film. Longinotto's camera is instead an almost invisible, never-sermonizing witness to the daily horrors of life in Durban, South Africa. The filmmaker's style is often described as observational, but here there feels as if there is no barrier between you and the scene that you are witnessing.
Case in point, after a particularly jarring and awful development, two of the Aunties, Jackie and Eureka, stand at the edge of a river, sorrow all around them. Together, in a kind of awful unison, they chainsmoke, lamenting what has just transpired. It is a moment fraught with deep tension, the women, puffing hard, like soldiers just off a battlefield. Yet there is something about the scene, the way in which the women move in concert, in how they dispatch their cigarettes before they are half-smoked, that has a hint of gallows humor to it, that lends to the whole scene a kind of truthful, complicated reality that few filmmakers can ever hope to capture.
And as the film builds and builds on the dread of numerous examples of child endangerment, somehow it can, against all odds, come to an ending that is, miraculously, joyous.
In the midst of a festival that many found disappointing for all sorts of reasons, the quality of the two Grand Jury prize winners, representing the two faces of Sundance, were reason enough for celebration.