OK, folks, here’s my final wrap-up report on the films I saw at Sundance this year. Like I said in previous posts, this was definitely one of the better editions I’ve attended. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 of my Festival wrap-up, as well as my previous post about Asian American representation in Park City this year.
For Part 3, I am highlighting what Sundance does best — presenting amazing documentaries and 2013 was no different. The 4 docs I am highlighting are truly the best, chronicling life in all its intricacies, with unique perspectives to create agents of change and awareness in today’s world. I know, sounds cheesy, but this is so true. And Sundance is the pinnacle of the social justice documentary.
BLACKFISH – This was one of the best docs I saw at Sundance this year, chronicling the history of killer whales and amusement parks, and the dark history behind this multi-million dollar industry and the “accidents” and deaths covered up to maintain the status quo that parks like SeaWorld are beneficial for the study and care of these magnificent creatures. Interviewing over a dozen ex-trainers, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, formulates key points in the SeaWorld timeline — from a fateful day for hired fishermen who participate in the capture of a pod of killer whales (one grizzly seaman who was there, almost breaks down from tears, considering this day the worst, most inhumane day of his life), and chronicles the life of key whales (all named Shamu when transferred to SeaWorld parks) and how their behavior is affected through their strained, tepid and misunderstood environment, leading up to deaths that are caught on videotape and some are very horrific to watch. But the lawyers come in and cover up many of these incidents as well, as it is surmised that these whales, who should’ve been released in the wild or even destroyed, are kept as “bulls” to continue the pipeline of offspring to sustain the “SeaWorld” experience.
The film is chilling, especially with first person accounts and whistleblowers who are now out to inform the public that the killer whale is a majestic, highly intelligent creature that needs to live in the wild, rather than a small cage (or pool) and the corporate practices and business model of parks like SeaWorld are inhumane and not sound. Check out the LA Times report on the film.
AFTER TILLER – After the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas in 2009, four physicians—Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Shelley Sella, and Dr. Susan Robinson—have become the new number-one targets of the anti-abortion movement, yet continue to risk their lives every day to keep doing work that they believe is vitally important. With unprecedented access into the lives of these doctors and the patients who seek their help, the directors (Martha Shane and Lana Wilson) follow these four heroes who fight for the rights of citizens everyday and risk their lives doing so.
It does boggle the mind that this type of terrorism continues in a post Roe vs. Wade world. But what was more chilling (aside from the Park City weather) was the extra security before all AFTER TILLER screenings — X-ray machines, wand detectors, pat downs, etc. It was like going through TSA with the terror alert level at Red. It was simply crazy. In the end, it was so worth it, and I hope this film gets seen by as many people as possible.
AMERICAN PROMISE – Damn, this ambitious doc just blew me away. 13 years in the making, this film chronicles the lives of two middle class Black families as they navigate the ups and downs of parenting and educating their sons. Both young boys are enrolled in the prestigious Dalton School in New York. The outcome is a fascinating look at the evolution of these young boys, from kindergarten to high school, and how race factors in in their elite environment.
The film reminds me of Michael Apted’s 7-Up series and to a greater extent, HOOP DREAMS. The evolution of these boys at the school is eye opening, but the camera also chronicles their parents, who also show their drive and parenting philosophies, warts and all, in this highly competitive environment. In the end, AMERICAN PROMISE presents what society considers what it takes to excel in the US nowadays and the so-called “opportunities” one needs to get ahead of the game. The film won a special grand jury prize at the Festival.
THE MOO MAN – This charming documentary on this soon to expire way of life, caught me off guard. The directors’ choices to capture farmer and bovine in such a subtle, cheeky way, and does the whole circle of life thing way better than other past “sustainability” films.
In the bucolic English countryside, Stephen Hook runs the family dairy farm, Hook and Son. They operate in a very lo-fi way, abandoning technology to “streamline” their operations into the 21st Century. Farming is a hard life and an even harder business, but Stephen and his family make it work by staying small and offering services like home delivery. And it’s not just a profession for Stephen: each cow has a name and is lovingly cared for, especially the farm’s resident “cover girl,” Ida. It becomes quite clear that Stephen’s unconventional and heartwarming friendship with his herd is what really enables the farm to survive.
There’s one scene where Stephen assists in the birthing of a calf, and it’s so damn scary, gross, and beautiful at the same time. You can see he cares for each and every one of his cows, and in some ways, the cows appreciation is reciprocated. In the end, THE MOO MAN may be a little slow for some viewers, but I was caught up with its old school charms and the love and care of one man with his farm and grasping on to a soon-to-be extinct way of life.
That pretty much wraps up my Sundance experience this year. I’m off to Berlinale next week, so I’ll continue on with the YOMYOMF reports from various film festivals around the world. Stay tuned!