Docs: The Best of Sundance

At the Sundance Film Festival I spotted Bono at a screening of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, a documentary about the myth behind the front man of the seminal punk band the Clash. But it was another celebrity who garnered everyone's attention. On the opening day of the Festival, founder, Robert Redford walked onstage at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City and demanded an apology from the Bush Administration for the war in Iraq.

"Like many others around the world," Redford said, he "had shown a spirit of unity" with the US government after September 11th. "We put all our concerns on hold to let the leaders lead," he said. "I think we're owed a big, massive apology." This declaration was even more blatant because the actor (although regarded as highly political) usually avoids political messages in his annual public speeches at Sundance.

Redford's declaration echoed many of the documentaries I was to see during the following seven days. The Festival opener, Chicago 10, recounted the demonstrations surrounding 1968's Democratic National Convention, which saw protestors clash with the National Guard over the Vietnam war in 1968. Using a cutting-edge blend of archival footage and animation, director Brett Morgen's film examines the trial of the famed "Chicago Seven" (anti-war activists including Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin), who were convicted of inciting riots. Morgen, who took the stage to a standing ovation after the screening, said one of his goals in making the film was to "mobilize the youth in the country to get out and stop this war."

His film was one of many referencing the Iraq conflict at this year's Festival. (Last year, the documentary Iraq In Fragments won three prizes, more than any other film. And, of course, it's also been nominated for an Oscar this year.)

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, a documentary by Robert F. Kennedy's daughter Rory, dealt with the abuses that occurred in an Iraqi prison in 2003, while No End In Sight (one of my personal favorites) was a riveting examination of the Bush administration's ill-advised and incompetent invasion and occupation of Iraq. On the very day of Bush's State of the Union speech last week the filmmakers and officials gathered to talk about the new movie and the situation in the Middle East. One of many examples of the au courant spirit of the Festival.

The injustices and horror of other current and historical political and social conditions were considered in a number of other documentaries, including: Nanking, which depicts the 1937 obliteration of a helpless population in China by the invading Japanese army. Two hundred thousand were killed, and tens of thousands of Chinese women were raped. But the film highlights the heroic attempts of a handful of expatriate Westerners (missionaries, businessmen, professors, and doctors), who valiantly saved thousands of lives.

Two films investigated the development and dropping of the first atomic bombs. Wonders Are Many, by Jon Else, who directed The Day After Trinity, follows the collaborative effort of theatre director Peter Sellars and composer John Adams on the opera Doctor Atomic, about the 48 hours leading up to the first atomic bomb test detonation in 1945. Having seen the opera in San Francisco last year, I found the backstage commentary and historical footage fascinating.

White Light/Black Rain served as a companion piece to Wonders. This documentary by Academy Award winner Steven Okazaki interweaves the stories of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with three of the American soldiers who carried out the bombing mission. This week's episode of the T.V. program 24 in which a nuclear bomb was detonated in a suburb of Los Angeles reminds us that we currently live in the shadow of a new arms race, which makes understanding the past all the more urgent.

No less topical was The Devil Arrives on Horseback, the devastating expose of the genocide in Darfur, directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, who are excellent examples of social activism through cinema. This superb doc follows the young hero Brian Steidle, an ex-Marine who is learning to change the world through peaceful means, as he witnesses and photographs the worst imaginable atrocities. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist writes about the situation: "It's as if history gives us a chance to redeem ourselves after Rwanda, and yet we are failing again." During the after-film Q&A, Brian said modestly. "I'm just a guy who tried to wake up the conscience of a bunch of people." Since 2003, 450,000 innocent people have been massacred (300 die each day) and 2.5 million have been displaced to Chad. Once again, outside events mirrored Festival films. On Monday in NYC, the concert "Requiem for Darfur: Making Music Speak for Those Without a Voice" (Verdi's "Requiem") was performed by the Manhattan School of Music at Carnegie Hall as a benefit for organizations providing relief to victims of the conflict in the Darfur.

And yet again, life crossed over into art on Sunday when, the day after Hilary announced her Presidential bid, I saw the uplifting Sundance winner Enemies of Happiness, a doc by Eva Mulvade and Anja Al Erhayem which follows the inspiring story of 28 year-old Afghani, Malalai Joya who becomes a symbol of integrity and change for women in her country after winning a parliamentary seat in 2005. I wish Hilary the best, but with all due respect, she is no Malalai Joya.

As Kenneth Turan of the L.A. "Times" said on NPR earlier this week, this year (as in most recent years) the documentaries stole the show at Sundance.

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