Headed to Sundance? Consider a documentary

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2012 1:34 p.m. MST

An image from the film "Searching for Sugar Man," by director Malik Bendjelloul.

Sundance

If there is one thing the Sundance Film Festival can’t be faulted for, it’s the variety it offers festivalgoers. This year is no exception, with everything from a sci-fi buddy picture/heist film (“Robot and Frank”) to an Indonesian action flick (“The Raid”) to a movie about an Argentine Elvis impersonator (“The Last Elvis”).

Part and parcel of Sundance’s emphasis on experimental, edgy filmmaking, though, is also a huge disparity in quality.

For potential audience members trying to experience the best of what Sundance has to offer, documentaries are a good option.

Although rarely accompanied by glamorous premieres or celebrity after-parties, the festival’s documentary films encapsulate what Sundance is all about: creative, independent thought and great storytelling.

This year’s nonfiction lineup, featuring 36 documentary films in three categories (U.S., World and the recently added Premieres section, intended for “big subjects”), is every bit as eclectic as the films competing in the Drama category.

With a few exceptions, documentaries tend to be more consistent in quality.

Also, a major plus for anyone trying to wait-list a movie, documentaries don’t typically attract crowds quite as large as the more prestigious dramatic films. And many of these have been receiving decidedly mixed reviews.

In a rare occurrence, the first acquisition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — reportedly purchased for a whopping six figures — is actually a documentary, called “Searching for Sugar Man.”

It tells the amazing, stranger-than-fiction story of a forgotten ‘70s singer-songwriter named Rodriguez. Amid rumors of a grisly onstage suicide, he disappeared without ever finding out that his album had made him bigger than Elvis in — of all places — apartheid-era South Africa. “Searching for Sugar Man” is a perfect example of the kind of story only a documentary can do justice to.

A nonfiction feature receiving positive buzz is a tragicomic look at America’s high-salary-earning 1 percent, called “The Queen of Versailles,” which, along with “Sugar Man,” premiered last Thursday as one of Sundance’s opening night films.

Other documentaries are “The Atomic States of America,” which explores the health-related side effects of nuclear energy in a Long Island reactor community; “China Heavyweight,” about state-sponsored boxing; and the Peter Jackson-produced “West of Memphis,” which is being called by some the definitive take on the notorious West Memphis Three case.

These films are not yet rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, and there is little information on potentially objectionable content.

More than anything, the quality of storytelling in the Sundance documentaries competing this year proves that nonfiction films are not, as the BBC’s Nick Fraser described in a panel discussion last Saturday, “like cod liver oil — good for you, but not overpoweringly exciting.”

Documentaries like “Searching for Sugar Man” can be as dramatic, compelling and emotionally charged as the best narrative films — be they independently produced or Hollywood extravaganzas.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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