[Melissa Hibbard files her latest report in a series, submitted Jan 28]
Winding down to the last couple of days of the festival, the docs that seem to be getting the most buzz are WAITING FOR SUPERMAN by Davis Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH; IT MIGHT GET LOUD) and CATFISH by directors Henry Joos and Ariel Schulman, which I haven’t been able to see because it’s been completely sold out with wait list lines in the triple digits! Even the P&I screening was full!
With three docs about Russia I think Sundance is trying to tell us something. MY PERESTROIKA, by Robin Hessman, is a strong film that looks at the collapse of the Soviet Union defined by the history of the 20th century. The editing is incredible and Hessman’s obvious familiarity with Russian culture creates an intimate look at the nostalgia of the past and discontent with the present. Her choice of following four classmates who have all taken different paths was smart. It’s obvious that she spent a lot of time on this film. It’s well crafted, entertaining and thought provoking. Three of the characters traveled from Russia to attend the premier and as always, the audience delighted in meeting the subjects. It’s always smart to bring your subjects to Sundance.
Continuing with the Russian theme, I headed into RUSSIAN LESSONS by Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya. The film delves into the violent and bewildering conflicts in the Caucasus, with Russia pitted against the former Soviet state of Georgia, and involving Georgia’s troubled regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It’s a super dense film – if fact, Nebrasov informs the audience before the film begins that it’s a complicated story and congratulates us on our bravery for being there. But it’s well worth the 2+ hours. The directors weave together a complex story of ethnic animosity, the blatant manipulation of footage in the media to perpetuate lies and the horrific war crimes committed against the local Georgian population. That particular conflict wasn’t covered much in the US media and the directors take their time piecing it together. The directors’ harsh attacks on the Russian government and media make them controversial. One person in the audience asked if they worried about their own safety. Nekrasov replied that it was more important to get this information out then be pre-occupied with his personal safety. He also made a documentary about the Russian journalist who was poisoned by the government a few years ago called MY FRIEND SASHA: A VERY RUSSIAN MURDER [and POISONED BY POLONIUM, aka REBELLION: THE LITVINENKO CASE, programmed by Thom Powers for TIFF 07], so he is well aware of the dangers associated with being a journalist in Russia.
I hopped into 12TH AND DELAWARE by co directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (pictured) who made JESUS CAMP a few years ago. The film tries to deliver an even handed look at two opposing clinics stationed on opposite sides of the street: an abortion clinic and an anti choice center that protests every day in front of the abortion clinic across the street. The directors do a good job of showing both sides but in the end you can’t help but look at the anti choice group as detrimental to the lives of the mostly under age girls dealing with life-changing situations. Some of the tactics that the anti-choice hard-liners employ to manipulate the women are so shocking that the audience responded with loud gasps. As with JESUS CAMP, the directors play nice to get in on the other side where access is typically limited. In this case it’s an anti abortion group. There was a woman in the audience who said that she works for the group that counsels young women against abortion and that their portrayal of their side was not typical of their work. Ewing responded that their choice in clinics had only to do with the fact that they faced each other physically. She went on to say that they had searched all over the country for their location and that 12TH AND DELAWARE was cinematically perfect and delivered the drama they wanted to capture surrounding the issue.
Another film getting a lot of buzz is FAMILY AFFAIR by first time director Chico Colvard. The subject of incest is hard to tackle and Chico conquers it in a beautifully intimate way, never overwhelming the audience with too much information. At 10 years old, Chico Colvard shot his older sister in the leg. This seemingly random act detonated a chain reaction that exposed unspeakable realities and shattered his family. This could have been a film that sends the audience into a downward spiral of horror and shock but instead he focuses on his sisters’ strength, ability to survive, and the power of forgiveness. Well done, Chico.
Last on my list of sobering films today was LAST TRAIN HOME by director Lixin Fan. I wish I could say I enjoyed the film but I got stuck on the front row, off to the side, making the viewing experience torture. My neck pain aside, it was a fascinating look at the migration of 130 million Chinese workers going on vacation over the Chinese New Year. (It’s the largest migration in the world.) Fan creates an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere with hundreds of thousands of travelers waiting for trains and jamming into tight spaces. The cinematography is strong and Fan creates a visual style that is both consistent and captivating. Aside from the impressive images of hordes of travelers, the film really examines the hardships migrant workers face: leaving their families in the country for factory jobs, sacrificing their health and their relationships with family members. Fan follows one family over a couple of years and captures the family as it slowly falls apart. The cinema verite style works well and the narrative arch is strong, making THE LAST TRAIN feel more like a narrative film than documentary.