On Monday we posted part one of our now-annual conversation with Sundance Documentary Programming experts David Courier and Caroline Lebresco, touching on some of the big themes in this year's program. In our continuing dialogue, we speculated on which Sundance 2011 films we will all still be talking about one year from now.
All these wonderful things: One thing I've heard a lot from different people was that they were excited about the breadth of topics. I heard a lot of people say it was more “poppy” than previous line-ups that they could remember.
David Courier: Absolutely.
ATWT: In the competition you have the Elmo film, you have the Tribe Called Quest film, you’ve got TROUBADOURS…
DC: You’ve got RESURRECT DEAD.
Caroline Libresco: BUCK is not an issue film. It has deep resonance with bigger, broader issues of nonviolence. It’s a film about a horse trainer who can tame the wildest horses and it’s a metaphor for nonviolent action and relationships with nature. But these were irresistible films for us.
DC: There were just as many heavy hitting films this year as there always are. We just wound up with a slate that is a little more human interest as opposed to social activist. That’s what happened. They’re all great films.
CL: Each and every one of them. But it is interesting. I’ve been thinking about it, too. You get down to your slate and you could have put in a heavier set of choices. But, actually, the Sundance Documentary Competition has always had a range of topics – some cultural topics, some portraiture – there’s always a range of styles and approaches and storytelling, for sure.
DC: Art docs, music docs, sports docs.
CL: I think we get to the place, and I think everybody knows this: we have 16 slots. There are maybe 50 films that we are maybe in love with. And we have to get to a point where we say, what is so irresistible that I can’t put it down, like it’s so important to the group (of programmers). That’s what it comes down to. And we try within that to show a range of topics, a range of styles.
DC: Yeah, (having) the range came into play in a big way.
CL: So there’s no overlapping of story topic. But you’re right, we have a lot of films that are about American culture.
DC: We do have two music films in competition – TROUBADOURS and BEATS, RHYMES, but the music is so different and the culture behind the music is important and really different.
CL: And they kind of occupy totally different corners and times in American culture.
DC: Yeah, east coast/west coast for one thing.
ATWT: I want to see the Phife vs. Carole King freestyle battle. (laughter) Can we plan that for Tuesday night?
ATWT: Not to choose favorites, but are there any films in there that you think will be a surprise to people. Like GASLAND or CATFISH last year, films that people went to without knowing that it was going to grab them.
DC: HOT COFFEE is one of those. It uses the famous McDonalds lawsuit as a springboard to talk about tort reform. You know, if you write the words “tort reform”, nobody’s gonna want to go see that but this is a film that will really grab people and absolutely make their blood boil. It will make them so angry. It’s basically about how corporations have basically stolen our rights to the jury system and to the courts. Ironically, everyone, including this filmmaker, finds out that just to submit to Sundance, you have to sign a binding arbitration clause which is a big issue in the movie.
CL: Limits your rights, your individual rights against the other entity and, yeah, we all live under those kinds of clauses. And guess who’s protected? Not us. That’s what the film’s about. And it’s also about the court debacle of a couple years ago when all those judges were bought out.
DC: It grabbed me because I completely bought in to the idea of, for instance, that McDonalds’ court case, as one of those frivolous lawsuits that’s clogging our judicial system and just doing the rest of us citizens a disservice. Well, that’s exactly what McDonalds wants us to think, and all major corporations. They hire media to craft the theme around that so that it gets disseminated through society and people buy it.
ATWT: And then you have people who opine, “oh, poor McDonalds has to put on their cup of coffee that it’s hot or someone will sue them”.
CL: Like oh, how is someone so stupid. But, in truth, she was seriously injured from it and she didn’t get that much and she actually had a case. And we all deserve, when there are valid cases, to be able to bring them to court.
DC: Because corporations have everything else. Because of lobbyists, they basically own government in so many ways. Access to the courts is a fundamental thing.
CL: I’d never understood the judges situation as well, where systematically around the country there were these court judges who had ruled against corporations being ousted en masse. I also think that HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is a film that has so much emotional power and depth. I think it will take people by surprise. Again, it’s a quiet film but it’s…
DC: Pretty devastating.
CL: A devastating film.
DC: The opening scene, a terminally ill cancer patient literally dies on screen. And it’s incredibly powerful, and you’re like, OK, I haven’t seen this before. We’re in for an interesting ride here and it sure is.
CL: The filmmaker is so good. He brings so much respect to the way he follows his subjects. He gets very close to this family that’s considering death with dignity. That’s one that people will be talking about. They don’t know it yet, but they will be.
DC: In an equally devastating way is a film called WE WERE HERE. It’s by David Weissman, it’s a historical documentary about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco when it first emerged. Sounds very simple but it is incredibly powerful about a community that came together and the subjects that he chooses – each one is so unique. One of them is the guy who sells flowers in the Castro and he had to give away so many flowers for free at funerals because there were so many funerals and friends were dying and he didn’t charge. He hardly made a living.
CL: I was talking to David about it the other night. I love this idea – you know how it seems like there’s this happy chemistry that happens sometimes when filmmakers trust their own experience as important enough to share? And sometimes it goes awry when we have self-indulgent personal documentary, but in this case, this is not a personal documentary, but what David did is he was there and this is a film that concentrates on the first 1-2-3 years as the AIDS crisis came like a tsunami and no one knew what it was. But he was there (at the time) and he decided to make this really bold choice to literally look at 5 characters to tell that story. He had this organic sense that they could tell this story, to go for depth rather than breadth, and to trust that because you were there, because this is something you really know, maybe you can bring a certain insight as a filmmaker. I think there are a lot of interesting questions in there, because his relationship to the material is tantamount and I think it is a really risky choice to decide to make a minimalist film about a massive topic which is how did the first reactors deal with the tsunami of AIDS and when they didn’t know what the hell it was and San Francisco was the front line.
DC: It’s that classic deeply, deeply personal becomes universal and that’s exactly what’s happening in this movie.
CL: It’s funny, I was talking to someone else recently about depth vs. breadth. Is there more power in going deeper than in going broader?
DC: A case can be made for both, depending on the topic.
CL: And you’d think that with this topic, he’d choose the other approach, to tell this big, massive, epidemic story of a city being overtaken. Well, how do you tell that story? I love that about this film.
ATWT: It’s kind of funny at this time of year when we’re talking about THE TILLMAN STORY and EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP and RESTREPO and THE OATH, which a year ago were just titles on a page for most of us – except for you guys, because you’d seen them. I think one of the exciting things for me about the Sundance list is that it’s tantalizing view into the future. You don’t know really what it is, but you see these titles that you are going to have as part of your conversation about the form of documentary for the next 12, 13, 14 months. And wonder if you feel that excitement when you’re watching them, the feeling of discovery, of “oh, this is what people will talk about for the next year and a half”.
CL: That’s kind of what we live for.
DC: Oh God, yes.
CL: When you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, a.) this film is working and b.) I think it’s gonna touch a lot of people, c.) I want to run and show it to my colleagues right now, tomorrow.
DC: Exactly. Take BUCK for instance. That’s a movie about the horse whisperer, the guy that the movie and book are based on. It sounds like some simplistic movie about a guy who tames horses. You leave this movie tamed. I mean I want every crazy friend of mine to go see this movie because what is extraordinary about this guy Buck Brannaman is that he literally leaps off the screen in this film and that’s what makes it a fabulous documentary.