Pictured: An image from Steve James 'The Interrupters'
Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column on all things documentary and non-fiction cinema.
Could anyone have guessed this time last year that 2010 would be the best year for documentary ever? Might we have predicted it based on the selections for the Sundance Film Festival, which we knew then to include new non-fiction works by Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross, Leon Gast, Sam Green, Amir Bar-Lev, Stanley Nelson and Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing? The thing is, it's very possible none of those works would even crack my top ten list for the year in docs.
But the festival did bring us many of my favorites of 2010 (including my #1, 'Last Train Home,' though this had previously premiered elsewhere, as well as 'Restrepo,' 'Enemies of the People,' 'Gasland' and the under-valued 'Secrets of the Tribe') as well as many of the strongest awards contenders (one of which is the Guggenheim). And let's not forget that two of the most talked about "questionable" titles, 'Catfish' and 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' premiered without much pre-fest buzz -- the latter wasn't even announced until the day before the event began.
So, looking at the crop of docs heading to Park City next month doesn't automatically suggest 2011 will be an even better year for non-fiction. We can only hope this will be true, eagerly await discoveries, whether they be simply well-crafted gems or dubious hybrids worthy of discussion, and for now at least get excited about new films from proven talents like Steve James ('Hoop Dreams'), Eugene Jarecki ('Why We Fight') and Morgan Spurlock ('Super Size Me'), all of whose latest appear in the brand-new program of Documentary Premieres.
The very fact that this section now exists proves how important docs are to Sundance, and vice versa, while also emphasizing the continued growth of the form in quality and popularity. This year we saw a documentary -- 'Freakonomics' -- marketed on the basis of its "all-star" directorial team (including Jarecki and Spurlock). The Documentary Premieres program goes a step further in highlighting familiar and returning names in non-fiction as equivalents to fiction filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Tom McCarthy. In addition to those names mentioned above, in this program we look forward to the latest from a past Grand Jury Prize winner, Liz Garbus ('The Farm: Angola U.S.A.'), whose 'Bobby Fischer Against the World' is pictured above, and an early Special Jury Prize winner Pamela Yates ('When the Mountains Tremble,' to which her new film, 'Granito,' is a sequel).
One of the reasons Sundance created the program seems to be in response to concerns last year that Oscar-winning heavyweights like Gibney, Guggenheim and Gast had unfair advantage in the competition section. Of course, the Grand Jury Prize winner went to a doc -- 'Restrepo' -- that was the directorial debut of its filmmakers. In the words of festival director John Cooper, in the line-up press release, the "section was a natural evolution to shine a light on films with prominent filmmakers or anticipated subjects without distracting from documentaries in competition."
How does this explain Oscar winner James Marsh ('Man on Wire') appearing in the World Documentary competition? And does it also not matter for Oscar nominee Marshall Curry ('Street Fight'), whose 'If a Tree Falls' is pictured above, to have a film contending in the U.S. Documentary section? Meanwhile past Grand Jury Prize winner Leonard Retel Helmrich ('Shape of the Moon') is also competing this year. So some returning filmmakers can still aim for the goal of winning more than once, a la Ondi Timoner ('Dig!' and 'We Live in Public'), after all.
In his All These Wonderful Things post on the out-of-competition doc titles selected this year, A.J. Schnack both quoted the Cooper statement and linked to a conversation with Sundance programmers David Courier and Caroline Libresco last year on the subject of the Gibney, Guggenheim and Gast issue. They both defended the reasoning behind having Oscar winners and unknowns in the same race. Here's how Courier put it:
"we're looking for films that really excite us and those three films and those three filmmakers made absolutely amazing movies. And it would kill me not to have them in competition, cause it also elevates our competition. It's one of the reasons filmmakers want to premiere at Sundance because we have a competition like that. I mean, it's the place to be."
That makes a lot of sense, but it also makes sense that a competition section like this year's U.S. Documentary program, which has a large majority of newcomers (including actor Michael Rapaport's directorial debut about A Tribe Called Quest, titled 'Beats, Rhymes and Life,' pictured above), would still be the place to be, given how many documentary and documentarian discoveries are made at the fest each year -- and more and more with each passing year.
Here are some numbers to think about: the 28 competing docs in both U.S. and World sections were selected from 1637 submissions. That's 7 films less than submitted the previous year, but still a huge playing field. There's no denying it's a big deal. Same goes for the non-competing titles, of which there are 13. All together, competing and non, there are 41 doc features showing at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, same as in 2010.
Yeah, that's right, the Documentary Premieres program seems like a whole new area allotted for additional titles, but it's not. It just puts the same number as usual into a better-sounding, all-encompassing section. This isn't a bad thing, especially in the way that it makes docs deservedly out to be on a level on par with dramatic films. Just as the competition sections are evenly made up of doc and drama categories, and most of the jury and audience prizes given are balanced, as well.
I can see how it might look like docs are being corralled and this can present a problem if we continue to see hybrids and other hard-to-define works being made (neither 'Catfish' nor 'Exit' were put into specific non-fiction section, by the way, though the former was at least grouped on paper with other documentaries in the otherwise broad 2010 Spotlight program). Of course, there's nothing keeping Sundance from still placing docs or doc-like films in other sections -- see 'Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel' in the Park City Midnight program, 'Grab' (pictured above) in the Indigenous Showcase and both 'The Nine Muses' and 'Woman Art Revolution' in the New Frontier program.
And one classifiably non-fiction film, the Ridley Scott-produced, Kevin Macdonald-curated user-generated film 'Life in a Day,' was included in the regular Premieres program, which hasn't suddenly been limited to dramatic titles with the introduction of the doc-only section. ('Life' has also just been selected as the fest's Centerpiece title). Was it placed there because the submitted footage is difficult to claim as certifiably real?
Stamping the non-competing documentary premieres more clearly as documentary, though, definitely has its benefits as more audiences flock to Park City every year solely or primarily to focus on the form. It's like a brand, in a way. And I'm one of many who's excited to start 2011 off with the new line of Sundance documentary product. Let's hope they're not only new but also improved over the 2010 line. Because who doesn't want a year that's even better than the one we've just had?