Every January, I make my annual pilgrimage to Park City, Utah, to work on the Sundance Film Festival. This year marked my 10th time working on the most prestigious film festival in North America. And this year’s crop of films was as impressive as any lineup I’ve seen since my first Sundance way back in 1999.
My top five films of Sundance 2012 are, in my opinion, destined for greatness. I only wish that everyone could be a part of the Sundance experience. There is nothing like attending
the world premiere of a film that touches you deeply, connects you directly to the storyteller and expands your understanding of the world. So here are my top five picks from Sundance 2012. In my opinion, if all of these films do not receive Academy Award consideration, the Oscar selection process is flawed beyond belief.
Searching for Sugar Man; Director/Screenwriter: Malik Bendjelloui
During the Meet the Programmers event on the eve of the 2012 festival, Trevor Groth, director of programming, shared his advice with me and my volunteer colleagues. “No matter where you are at Sundance, that’s the perfect place to be,” he said. Trevor’s philosophy became my mantra throughout this year’s festival. On Opening Night, I was 10 minutes late for the volunteer screening of the documentary “Ethel,” and was not allowed entry. Undeterred, I checked my film guide and saw that Searching for Sugar Man — a film in the World Cinema Documentary competition — was playing at the Library Theatre.
I headed over to the venue and met up with my Aussie buddy Mike, the theater manager. Getting a volunteer ticket proved easy, and once the film began, I knew I was in the perfect place. In Searching for Sugar Man, director Malik Bendjelloui chronicles the spellbinding tale of Rodriguez, a Latino folk-rock singer from Detroit who released two groundbreaking albums in the early ’70s, and simply dropped off the map. Decades later, when Rodriguez’s second LP, Coming from Reality, was finally released in South Africa, his legion of fans scooped it up like hotcakes. A South African journalist began a quest to find out what happened to the enigmatic singer/songwriter, and his journey leads him down a long and winding road with a most unexpected ending. One of my peak experiences of this year’s festival is being part of a standing ovation given to Sixto Rodriguez as he stepped to the microphone inside the Library Theatre for the Q&A session. Rodriguez’s peaceful, humble nature was akin to that of a Buddhist monk, and everyone in the theatre undoubtedly felt blessed to be part of such a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event.
The Invisible War — Director/Screenwriter: Kirby Dick
The power of documentary to enlighten is matched only by its ability to spur audiences to action. Director Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War sheds light on the US military’s dirty little secret. An estimated 30 percent of servicewomen and 1 percent of servicemen are sexually assaulted during their enlistment. And that’s just the soldiers who find the courage to stand up to their attackers. An estimated 80 percent of all sexual assaults on military personnel go unreported, according to the US Department of Defense. The military estimates that 15 percent of all new recruits have a past sexual assault on their record before they enlist. Kirby Dick’s film focuses on half a dozen women and one man whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the brutal, horrific actions of their “brothers in arms.” Cory, a former member of the US Coast Guard, left the service after she reported the commanding officer who attacked her in her barracks. More than a year later, she is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, taking dozens of prescription medications and still needs surgery to repair the damage done to her jaw by her assailant. As she waits for the Veterans Administration to process her claim, the audience feels her outrage and frustration. Rather than remain a victim, she joins forces with other servicewomen who have suffered sexual assault and travels to Washington, DC to tell her story to members of Congress and the national media. Cory also signs onto a lawsuit against the military to receive long-awaited justice. In the end, the audience is left with the unsettling paradox that we count on our servicemen and women to protect us, but who is protecting them?
The House I Live In — Director/Screenwriter : Eugene Jarecki
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki tackled the gargantuan subject of America’s militaryindustrial complex in his amazing documentary Why We Fight. In his latest project, Jarecki addresses one of the greatest American failures of all time: the War on Drugs. Jarecki begins the film by exploring his personal connection to the War on Drugs — his relationship with his “Nanny.” That’s the name of Jarecki’s family housekeeper, whose own family is ripped apart by the scourge of drugs and the draconian enforcement measures implemented by America over the past 40 years. Then Jarecki presents us with some sobering facts: The War on Drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, making America the world’s largest jailer while destroying countless lives of mostly poor people. There are more African American men imprisoned in America today than were enslaved in our nation in the mid-19 th century. But the demographics of the American prison system are beginning to change. With the rise of methamphetamines , more white defendants are being sentenced to life in prison for drug possession than ever before. Sundance programmer David Courier summed it up best when he stated, “This film is surely destined for the annals of documentary history.”
Under African Skies — Director: Joe Berlinger
The award for “feelgood” movie of Sundance 2012 goes to director Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies, which chronicles Paul Simon’s return to South Africa upon the 25 th anniversary of the release of his monumental album Graceland. Simon reunites with the talented indigenous musicians with whom he collaborated on Graceland and his trip to South Africa sparks a reflection on the controversy surrounding the album’s release in the late 1980s when an apartheid government ruled the nation. Simon went against the African National Congress and its call for a “cultural boycott” and made a record that could very well be the greatest musical collaboration of the 20th century. Simon unapologetically toured with the South African singers and musicians 25 years ago and met resistance at nearly every turn. In the film, Simon shares a healing moment with the former leader of the ANC, and the power of the artist to create societal change comes shining through in Berlinger’s brilliant film.
5 Broken Cameras — Director/Screenwriters: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi
For six years, Emad Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil’in, tirelessly documented the Israeli encroachment to build high-rise condominiums on Palestinian land on the West Bank.
Beginning with the birth of his son Gibreel in 2005, Burnat tells the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of his child. The film is structured in five parts marked by the destruction of Burnat’s collection of video cameras by Israeli soldiers. As Gibreel grows into a young boy, we see the loss of innocence and it’s heartbreaking. Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker, collaborates with Burnat on a fantastic film that tells the side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we never see as Americans. Burnat and Davidi, whose collaboration should serve as a model of cooperation for the region, have given all of us a gift with 5 Broken Cameras. I, for one, am truly grateful.
The Sundance Film Festival is not about movie premieres, celebrity sightings or latenight parties — far from it. The Sundance Film Festival is a celebration of the artistic impulse within us all. Festival founder Robert Redford said it best: “Whether it’s a painting or a song or a film, a work of art can nudge us to a new way of seeing and sometimes, even to a new way of being.”
Well said, Bob. Long live Sundance!