Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column devoted to all things documentary. The above image is from 'How to Die in Oregon.'
Last night, almost a year to the date of its sudden, last minute entry onto the Sundance 2010 schedule, Banksy's 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' won the top award at the Cinema Eye Honors, which recognizes the year's best in non-fiction filmmaking.
Although I don't agree it is the best documentary of the year (in my opinion, that would be fellow Sundance '10 alum 'Last Train Home,' which took three of its own Cinema Eye trophies), 'Exit' has been one of the most significant, drawing a lot of attention to non-fiction cinema as it made us all question the very nature of the mode while also raising curiosity and consciousness about street art, the established art world and, most popularly, the existence and identity of Banksy (was he at the Honors last night? Very few attendees can be sure).
As a non-fiction film fan, it is exciting and favorable to see any doc, even one I dislike (and I do in fact like 'Exit'), remain a talking point for so long.
'Exit' is likely to end up with an Oscar nomination next week, as well. And a handful of other shortlisted Sundance films -- including 'Waiting for Superman,' 'The Tillman Story,' 'Restrepo' and 'Waste Land' -- could join (or substitute for) Banksy in the Best Documentary Feature category. This has me wondering which of this year's Sundance docs will follow in their shoes a year from now.
Presently, I've seen only a few titles ahead of their Park City premieres, and it's hard to tell what will be talked about by fest's end, let alone what will remain topical into 2012. But as I travel to Utah today, I'm still anticipating some terrific works, regardless of whether or not they attract as much mainstream attention as last year's 'Exit,' 'Superman,' 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' (winner of the Cinema Eye audience award) and 'Catfish' have over the past twelve months.
'Catfish,' which I seem alone in preferring to 'Exit,' similarly made people dubious about what is true and what isn't. However, throughout its spotlight the film may have fallen more on the side of controversy than curiosity. When Cinetic's Matt Dentler recently tweeted, "I'm happy to say that I don't think we will have another 'Catfish' at Sundance this year," I knew what he meant, but I also wondered if we'll have another anything so swelling with discussion-driving material.
It would be fine with me if we don't, if this year we just relax and enjoy the stories and characters without needing to question their authenticity. That was 2010's thing. At least one doc screening this year presents a confusing mix of reality and fiction, yet that film, Carlos Puga's 'Satan Since 2003,' is in the shorts program and is unlikely to generate the kind of talk that a long-form doc on moped gangs could ('Satan' is perfectly awesome in its 20-minute form, so I don't mean to encourage its expansion).
So far I'm not seeing anything so tricky in the feature documentary sections, though I've heard some terrific premature buzz on Jon Foy's 'Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles,' which like 'Exit' concerns a kind of street craft -- this time strange tile works embedded in pavements of cities across the U.S. -- and the mysterious artist behind it. In the press notes, Foy describes the surreal investigatory film as having a feeling of "magical realism." But he says it's the opposite of "found footage"-type fiction films, something "that is actually real, but has a feeling of unreality to it."
Going by their shared beginnings in prank calls and equal concern for urban folklore, I am already seeing a connection between Foy's film and Matthew Bate's 'Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure,' which details a history of an underground phenomenon involving cassette tape recordings of two roommates who take the term "odd couple" to the extreme. The documentary is most certainly to be called this year's 'Winnebago Man' (not a Sundance alum) because it also deals in a kind of accidental and viral form of celebrity, yet it also shows us that viral memes flourished more slowly and organically in analog form, long before the Internet took charge.
Surely Andrew Rossi's 'Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times' will similarly raise the topic of analog versus digital, possibly also concentrating on the former in its look behind the scenes at the newspaper's publication. In a clip released from the film, we can already see that the doc topically touches on the Wikileaks controvery and offers some relevant commentary on how such media compares to traditional print journalism.
More celebratory of the Internet, I believe, are the Ridley Scott-produced, crowd-sourced 'Life in a Day' and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Schlain's 'Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology.' I initially dreaded the former, yet having seen some footage I am now looking forward to the YouTube-sponsored work as another film functioning as a collection of archival actuality material. Nothing groundbreaking or otherwise substantial, really. Just simply documentary in the original sense. Schlain's film has had me most curious of anything selected for Sundance this year. The fact that she's encouraging audiences to keep their phones on during the film is key to this curiosity. However, I hope this abnormal idea is not the only thing we'll have to talk about in the end.
Meanwhile, after a few disappointing works from each, I really hope we'll be discussing the new docs by Morgan Spurlock ('The Greatest Movie Ever Sold') and Steve James ('The Interrupters') as much as we did their breakthroughs (Sundance vets 'Super Size Me' and 'Hoop Dreams,' respectively). Can Spurlock show us something more necessary or funny about the subject of product placement than FilmDrunk's recent short video essay did? Will James' lengthy film keep us intrigued for nearly three hours, and will it satisfy as a non-fiction version of 'The Wire,' as Toronto Film Festival and DOC NYC programmer Thom Powers leads us to believe in his showcase of recommended Sundance '11 docs?
Powers also reinforces my excitement for the chimp doc 'Project Nim,' for which he says 'Man on Wire' Oscar-winner James Marsh has done it again with his talent for finding wonderful characters to document. I expect this film will be entertaining more than conversation-spawning. The same goes for 'The Bengali Detective,' which should delight audiences with its cast of dancing dicks (as in P.I.) more than making them aware or concerned for any of India's problems or causes.
Biographical and historical narratives about Ronald Reagan (in Eugene Jarecki's 'Reagan'), Bobby Fischer (Liz Garbus' 'Bobby Fischer Against the World'), the black power movement (Göran Hugo Olsson's 'The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975') and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood's 'Magic Trip') should also prove to be more popular than thought provoking. But we'll see. Maybe a doc about a ticklish Muppet (Constance Marks' 'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey') will inspire the most debate. More likely, I hope, Marshall Curry's latest, 'If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front' will be met with arguments over how to adequately save the world and over who should be considered a terrorist.
Wishful preparation has me looking to 'The Redemption of General Butt Naked' for this year's 'Enemies of the People' (reversely so?), 'The Last Mountain' for this year's 'GasLand' (another Cinema Eye winer, by the way) and 'The Flaw' for this year's 'Inside Job' (not a Sundance alum).
Peter D. Richardson's 'How to Die in Oregon,' which is set to be the fest's most controversial documentary (I also hear maybe this year's most astounding) given that it supposedly shows people taking their own lives, as legally allowed by Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, reminds me of a recent under-seen faux documentary called 'A Necessary Death' (not a Sundance alum), and I'm expecting to be challenged morally with this actual non-fiction film as it promises to teeter on the same ethical boundaries.
Certainly, though I'm also looking hopefully to those and other docs for this year's ... something unlike anything we've ever seen before. Yet it's so hard to believe after last year's graduates that we'll get anything as bold and hilarious as 'The Red Chapel,' as fresh (yet also retrogressive) as 'Utopia in Four Movements' or as multifaceted as 'Catfish' (yes).
I guess I would also just settle for a few familiar films that are really great.
Stay tuned to my Twitter (@thefilmcynic) and right here on Cinematical for my reviews of as many Sundance '11 docs as I can fit in. And come back to Doc Talk in two weeks with a post-fest summary.