If there's anything the Sundance Film Festival is particularly good at, it's showcasing American independent films that are likely to be picked up by studios, or at least be pretty good. So I forgive myself slightly for having a festival-going diet that's very, very heavy on English language narrative films, mostly about white people and usually featuring a famous person or two. You follow the buzz at festivals, and for better or for worse, the buzz here is generally around fiction films starring Americans.
But I have at least managed to catch a handful of documentaries, all of them pretty terrific and likely to be picked up for your viewing soon enough. All of them tackle relatively big and serious issues, from apartheid-era South Africa to the war on drugs to the question or whether or not Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing (really!). And all of them tweak, in their own way, what you might expect from the standard documentary format. Here are three mini-reviews of each film.
Under African Skies
If you're not up on your 80s music history this title might make you think of some hard-hitting piece about the Sudanese civil war. But if you've already got a song stuck in your head, get ready to enjoy the hell out of Under African Skies, a documentary about Paul Simon's Graceland album, taken from both archival footage and recordings of a 25th anniversary he and the album's band recorded together in Johannesburg last summer. Graceland wasn't just a huge success and a landmark for world music artists crossing over into American pop, but an issue of controversy thanks to the apartheid law still in place in South Africa. Simon broke an international cultural embargo by spending 10 days in South Africa recording the album, and was criticized by everyone from black college students (a Howard University kid accuses him of cultural appropriation in one clip) to the South African political group the African National Congress, who had demanded that Simon meet with them before visiting the country.
By combining this still-tricky history with remembrances of the recording sessions and scratching out lyrics, Under African Skies becomes a music documentary with unusual depth, not just celebrating an album but examining what went into creating its unique collaboration. We hear the original South African accordion song that eventually became the opening track "Boy in the Bubble," and watch video of Simon playing with his band for the first time, in clear giddy awe at what looks to him like a brand-new kind of rock and roll. At the same time the doc doesn't forgive Simon his transgressions-- threaded throughout the film is a recent conversation between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo, who vocally opposed the album at the time. The conversation ends with a hug and forgiveness, but director Joe Berlinger never favors either side, showing Simon as both a maverick who put the art above all and a thoughtless embargo-breaker who let his ego get in the way. It's clear that history has relieved Graceland of its tension and allowed it to stand alone as a singular achievement, but Under African Skies proves that history is still worth remembering as well.
Suffused with music and history and the always surreal sight of old men recreating the work of their younger selves, Under African Skies is heartfelt and powerful, vital viewing for music fans or anyone with even the vaguest memories of the Graceland phenomenon. There's no distribution deal yet in place for Under African Skies, but it should be an inevitable easy sell to some lucky buyer soon.
The House I Live In
Issue docs often have no trouble appealing to an audience-- riling up your base is one of the oldest tricks in the book-- but to make them good, and not a glorified CNN report or textbook excerpt, is the real challenge. Eugene Jarecki, who was here last year with the dry and surface-level Reagan, makes a complete turnaround into powerful polemic with The House I Live In, a thoughtful and devastatingly persuasive screed against the war on drugs. It starts from a fairly navel-gazing premise, in which Jarecki wonders why the children of his African-American childhood nanny haven't been as successful as he and his siblings, but he quickly and fascinatingly hones in on drugs-- and more specifically, the way they are prosecuted in this country-- as the cause. From there it's a sprawling and dramatic journey across America, as Jarecki interviews law enforcement, drug dealers, prison guards and everyone in-between to uncover the many, many ways the War on Drugs isn't working for anybody.
Jarecki narrates much of the story himself, and his former nanny's story makes for a nice emotional throughline, but the most dominant voice in the film might be The Wire creator David Simon, who used his experience as a Baltimore reporter to create his epic TV series about American criminal decay. Fans of The Wire might be familiar with a lot of the storylines in The House That I Live In, about the revolving door between prisons and ghettoes and how the drug trade is the only viable business in many African-American neighborhood, but this documentary's scale, and ability to slap the audience with sobering facts, takes it to a new level. WIthout ever lingering too long on an individual story, Jarecki links the fates of a Yonkers teen facing years in prison and a judge forced to imprison kids against his will thanks to mandatory sentencing laws, showing how the system is destroying them both while failing to curb drug use whatsoever.
The House I Live In is a big story that never feels ungainly, and though it never suggests a concrete solution to fighting drugs-- and doesn't really wade into the real fact of how destructive drug use can be-- it's clear and compelling proof that what we're doing isn't working, and may even amount to the destruction of an entire population as we continue to focus drug enforcement arrests on the black community. It may be preaching to the choir, but it's a choir with plenty of other homegrown problems to worry about-- and The House I Live In is fascinating evidence that the War on Drugs is the biggest, and least visible, problem of all.
What did you see when you saw Stanley Kubrick's The Shining? Is it a simple thriller story about a man going crazy in an isolated hotel? Is it a master filmmaker's efforts at exploring paranoia and mental instability? Is it reflective of America's bloody history of wiping out the Native Americans? Or, hey, is it actually a metaphor for Kubrick's own experience faking the moon landing and attempting to hide it from his wife?
Those wild theories and many more are all fair game in Room 237, which uses nothing but footage from Kubrick's films and others to accompany audio recordings of a number of The Shining scholars, who present theories that seem fairly reasonable-- the Native American one-- to the completely bananas, all of them sounding perfectly convincing and sane. Director Rodney Ascher only occasionally comments on these theories, using particularly over-the-top film clips to accompany them or Jack Nicholson's line "Anything you say, Lloyd. Anything you say." But for the most part he allows them to unspool with the kind of careful attention the theorists might themselves give it, using maps of the Overlook Hotel, frame-by-frame shot analysis and clips from other films to illustrate their points. At one point we even see what happens when you play the film backwards and forwards simultaneously; it may not mean as much as the one guy is trying to tell us that you see Danny framed between two different scenes with his father, but it looks pretty cool all the same.
Anyone who's ever allowed themselves to get a little loopy when thinking about their favorite films should dig this one, since we've all been there-- you notice a continuity error and wonder if it might be something more, or link together the color scheme in two separate scenes and think you've discovered some kind of key. Kubrick's meticulously planned movies are especially susceptible to this kind of feverish analysis, and part of the fun of Room 237 is that you get in on it, wandering the hallways of the Overlook Hotel with these super fans and figuring out if you can see what they see. The film works up carefully to most of the theories, even dropping in the "faked moon landing" scenario so that it feels somewhat plausible, and while there are plenty of laughs to be had at some of the wilder conclusions, you're more likely to walk out of Room 237 feeling inspired than condescending toward these theories. It can get a little silly at times, and it's fair to assume Kubrick would have loathed most of these theories, but Room 237 is an engaging and cleverly made tribute to fierce love of movies, even if it takes strange shapes sometimes.
For all of my Sundance coverage, keep checking back to this page. The festival is still running through Sunday, so there's much more to come!