Despite the outrage over racial exclusion in this year’s Oscar nominations and the Academy’s announcement that they will be swiftly enacting a whole host of changes to ensure greater diversity in the make-up of future votes, in the doc world, all eyes have been fixated on this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. While Anthony Kaufman looked back at the films that had a lasting impact from last year’s fest in Filmmaker Magazine, everyone from Tom Roston to Christopher Campbell, through Kenneth Turan, Amy Taubin, Trevor Groth and Brooks Barnes have been listing their most anticipated films of the fest, each noting a variety of exciting docs on the horizon. At indieWIRE, Eric Kohn outlined why Sundance continues to be such an important beacon of cinema in a sea of international film festivals, while our own Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen spoke on WNYC this about why New Yorkers should care about the happenings in Park City this week.
Looking at the festival’s lineup as a whole, one will soon notice that this year’s hot button issue weaving throughout a whole host of films is that of domestic gun violence, and not the gratuitous action film type. Leading the conversation are non-fiction films like AJ Schnack’s SPEAKING IS DIFFICULT, Kim Snyder’s NEWTOWN, Stephanie Soechtig’s UNDER THE GUN and less directly, Robert Greene’s KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik explores the depths of this topical programming decision, noting, “When the Sundance Film Festival begins Thursday, it will do so with a rare accumulation of movies about the subject of gun safety. All of them hope to raise questions, if not provide solutions, in a place that has long been a ground zero for cultural movements.” Brooks Barnes of The New York Times awknowledged that “This year Sundance programmers, with deep commitment to freedom of expression, and their selected filmmakers seem to be taking a position that real guns, not the movie kind, ought to be more tightly policed.” Likewise at Nonfics, Christopher Campbell also took notice of the program, stating that “This time it’s about the issue of real gun violence in America — the problem with constant mass shootings and the debate over gun control and the 2nd Amendment.”
Back here at Stranger Than Fiction, we are ramping up for our 2016 Winter Season, which begins next Tuesday at the IFC Center with Craig Lowy’s high flying OXD: ONE EXTRAORDINARY DAY, about Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Company and their attempt to perform on some of London’s most beloved landmarks. Season tickets, as well as individual tickets, are currently on sale. As an aside, I’d also like to point out that this week Thom Powers launched the online home of his soon to be released new documentary focused podcast, Pure Nonfiction.
Returning to the topic of Sundance, indieWIRE’s Chris O’Falt outlined the wrinkles that Netflix and Amazon have added to the already complex distribution market at the festival. On the topic of distribution, WNET announced “the launch of its first theatrical imprint, American Masters Pictures, for documentaries co-produced by the American Masters series, executive produced by Michael Kantor,” with a trio of docs already primed for release following their Sundance debut. Vimeo also announced this week they pledge to fund the development of projects by female filmmakers via their new Share the Screen initiative, stating, “Gender inequality in filmmaking isn’t simply a woman’s problem: it’s everyone’s problem. When diverse voices are given equal consideration and weight, more informed artistic decisions are made, better stories are told — and it’s also the right thing to do as human beings.”. Giving a free sneak peak into the offerings within the festival’s New Frontier section via the their Virtual Reality app NYTVR, The New York Times released a trio of documentary VR shorts in Danfung Dennis’ AMERICAN BISON, Nonny de la Peña’s KIYA, and Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s WAVES OF GRACE.
Reviews galore are also starting to pour out of Park City. I logged a pair of reviews over at IONCINEMA of Pieter-Jan De Pue’s THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED and Maya Goded’s PLAZA DE LA SOLEDAD, while two takes on Kevin Macdonald’s SKY LADDER: THE ART OF CAI GUO-QIANG came in from The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman and Christopher Campbell of Nonfics. Hoffman also reviewed Penny Lane’s mischievously funny NUTS! Bilge Ebiri of Vulture raved about Jeff Feuerzeig’s AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times spoke with Will Allen of HOLY HELL, The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg warmly regarded the first 30-for-30 miniseries, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, and Brooks Barnes of The New York Times previewed Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES.
Looking to other festivals, New Directors/New Films has named their first eight selections, including a pair of harrowing docs in Zhao Liang’s BEHEMOTH and Pietro Marcello’s LOST AND BEAUTIFUL. Hot Docs launched a trio of announcements that Steve James will be their 2016 Outstanding Achievement Recipient, Rosie Dransfeld wil be honored with a Focus On Retrospective, and this year’s Made In program will highlight docs from Australia.
Hot Docs’ Doc Soup was also among the many funding and development programs that opened their doors to submissions this week. The Sheffield Doc/Fest and Just So Film Fund launched a new short film funding program titled Postcards with a simple submission process: “The brief is simple: short form documentary ideas (1-5 minutes aprx.) that concern themselves with form and not just content. To submit ideas for the fund please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a single page outline of your idea including links to previous work. The deadline for the first round of submissions is 31 January 2016.” Seed & Spark have also gone live with their new Filmmaker Gift Box which “contains products, services, and festival waivers from our incredible film partners that every successful Seed &Spark crowdfunding project gets when they reach 500 followers.” Both UnionDocs‘ Summer Documentary Intensive and IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Labs are also now open for submissions. Additionally, Chicken & Egg Pictures announced their latest round of funding winners, as did the TFI Doc Fund. And with an eye on those pesky budget lines, Film Festival Secrets have listed 10 ways to stretch that festival submission budget.
For those unable to make it to Park City this year, look no further than Kartemquin Films’ ongoing 50th Anniversary screenings, this week streaming HUM 255  for free. Filmmaker Jim Casey also posted a new half hour long doc on his Vimeo page titled STANLEY KUBRICK: THE LOST TAPES.
I’ll leave you this week with a trio of cinephilic gems in Eric Hynes‘ non-fiction examination of the Oscar nominated THE BIG SHORT at Film Comment, Robert Greene‘s extensive Best Docs of 2015 piece at Sight & Sound, and the digital reboot of University of Michigan’ Film Criticism journal. Until next time, if you have any tips or recommendations for the Memo, please contact me via email here, or on Twitter,@Rectangular_Eye.