Last December, we grabbed coffee with Sundance programmers Caroline Libresco and David Courier and forecasted the festival that would unveil one month later. We all had such a good time, we decided to make it an annual event. So, a week or so ago, we got together for breakfast and talked about this coming year's batch of films and remembered a portion of our conversation from last year that actually might have had an effect on Sundance's program for 2011.
All these wonderful things: So when you finish the selection process and you have that first day off to reflect on what you’ve chosen each year, do you think about themes? Maybe you think about themes while you’re actually deciding the films, but do you think, “wow, this year there were a lot of these kinds of films” or “this year will leaning toward this or that direction”?
David Courier: We actually haven’t had a day off yet, so… (laughter) But yeah, we do start to think about themes.
Caroline Libresco: And there are things that start to emerge, things we start to notice along the way and after, for sure. And it’s really actually fun to kind of step back – even just the other day, that was the first time I really stepped back – or the day we talk to our editorial colleagues about ideas, suddenly it was just there. There were all these interesting connections between the films.
ATWT: Does it sometimes feel like there’s something in the water that leads filmmakers toward certain topics.
DC: Yes. If you add all the films we didn’t select, oh my God, religion and cults and the fine line between them is so much in the consciousness. It’s insane.
CL: And that’s throughout the festival, not just in the docs.
ATWT: Can you pinpoint any specific reason why that is the case this year? Did something happen two or three or four years ago?
CL: I do think it has something to do with the kind of mounting power over the last decade in this country of the Christian fundamentalist movement, which is now upwards of 60 million people, 1/5 of the country, and its hold on government in the last decade. How can you ignore it? But it’s a lot of the (narrative) feature films in the festival and there were lots more that we didn’t end up showing, too. It’s just fascinating. Films in the festival like HIGHER GROUND, SOUND OF MY VOICE, SALVATION BLVD…
DC: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, which I just like saying.
CL: THE LEDGE, just a ton of these. People just trying to make sense of religiosity, of devout Christianity.
DC: Another big theme that’s emerged – a lot in docs, too – is the state of the media and journalism and basically the evaporation of good investigative journalism. Journalism, the New York Times for instance, used to be “the word” and that’s no longer the case with 24 hour news and the internet and people are struggling to keep up and decide what’s real because there’s no such thing anymore as “the voice”. So we got a lot of films that deal with that.
DC: That is huge in the documentaries we saw, including some that we’re showing.
CL: I feel like in a way that that is what American documentary has been about – watchdogging corporate and government power over citizens.
DC: There’s so many films about the financial crisis and the crash, and everything that led up to it. And the story of what led up to it is all about corporate greed and corporations taking over individual rights. We’re showing David Sington’s film THE FLAW, Charles Ferguson’s INSIDE JOB is out there.
CL: There were a number of other great films that we saw…
DC: Really good films about this subject. That’s always a heartbreaking thing for us, when you can’t show a movie you just absolutely love, because you had it covered.
ATWT: One of the things I love about the Sundance unveil is that for a couple days after, people will ask, “what did you think of the list”? (laughter) Like at the IDA Awards, I heard this from a lot of people.
CL: Really? People had opinions?
DC: That’s so interesting because no one has seen them! How can they be forming an opinion?
CL: Wait, what were some of the thoughts? I’d love to hear those things.
ATWT: Everyone was interested when the competition list came out that it didn’t have a lot of big names on it.
CL & DC (in unison): Yes.
ATWT: There were a few people whose work we were familiar. So then the next day, the Documentary Premiere section was announced and, as I wrote, “where the stars are”. And so that was interesting, because I remembered that we talked last year about there being three Oscar winners in the competition.
CL: Yeah, you coined that term, “the three G’s” (for Gast, Gibney and Guggenheim).
DC: Yes, the three G’s.
CL: Which was really helpful, actually, because we used that all year.
DC: Oh yeah, and it’s partly what’s spurred us…
DC: …to do the Doc Premiere section. This conversation we had last year was definitely pivotal.
CL: We were talking about it for a couple years before, but it was so glaring that we were really a festival of discovery and discovering new artists and the American documentary form is so mature and of course you have all these incredible people making incredible films and they’ve been going into competition. And it’s time to put them in a different category.
DC: Premieres is nice because, again, we’re elevating documentaries to our Narrative Premiere section, instead of sticking them in something that might seem like a disservice to master filmmakers.
CL: It feels so right.
DC: And they’re unfolding throughout the festival. They’re not just playing once.
Next: David and Caroline talk about some of the standouts of this year's documentary line-up...