Sundance succeeds with values-laden documentaries

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31 2013 3:40 p.m. MST

Sam Berns is a gifted teenager who suffers from progeria, a rare disease that causes his body to prematurely age. In "Life According to Sam," his mother's love knows no bounds.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY, Utah — The 2013 Sundance Film Festival could well be known in the future as a year dominated by an unusually large number of tawdry feature films, if national headlines are any indication.

It also may be remembered for a remarkable stable of strong, uplifting documentaries.

The mainstream media usually glosses over a critical distinction about Sundance. As raunchy as many of the scripted films can be, Sundance is quite likely the best venue in the world for debuting full-length documentaries. Consequently, the festival’s documentarians are often world-class storytellers capable of creating soulful content that is insightful, informative and even inspirational.

A quintet of praiseworthy films from this year’s festival illustrated that the art of making uplifting documentaries is very much alive and well at Sundance.

'Striving for Sundance'

One of the five is by director Steve Hoover, who came to Sundance 2013 to premiere “Blood Brother,” his first feature-length documentary.

“The documentaries are so strong (at Sundance) because it’s the best place to premiere your documentary,” Hoover told the Deseret News. “So everyone who’s working on something of value is striving for Sundance.”

For documentaries like "Blood Brother" that don't already have a distribution agreement, Sundance offers a prime shot at getting "picked up" because industry executives flock to Park City, Utah, for the express purpose of snapping up titles. Even the documentaries that are already locked into distribution agreements — such as "Gideon's Army," which HBO Documentaries bought after seeing a 20-minute "rough cut" very early in the production process — can benefit greatly from the publicity and industry buzz that a strong showing at Sundance can generate.

Sundance also offers people like Hoover the rare opportunity to meet and mingle with peers. When asked to pinpoint the best parts of his Sundance experience, Hoover’s cadence quickened as he spoke about the opportunity to hang out with some of his fellow documentary filmmakers.

“Getting to meet a lot of the directors of these documentaries, that was really awesome because a lot of them are really solid, talented people,” he said. “I found myself kind of really giddy. Like when I met Sean and Andrea Fine (a husband-wife tandem that premiered their documentary ‘Life According to Sam’ at this year’s festival), I was so excited to talk to them about their film because it was one of the films I wanted to see going into the festival.”

Cream of the crop

“Blood Brother” claimed the two highest honors available to U.S. documentaries: the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Hoover, a Pittsburgh native who used to make TV commercials and music videos, unassumingly stumbled onto the project that would become “Blood Brother” only because his best friend, Rocky Braat, pestered Hoover for three solid years with the idea of going to India to capture some footage of an orphanage for children with AIDS.

The magic of “Blood Brother” is rooted in a gripping narrative with a knack for hooking audiences. As the film begins, Hoover voices serious reservations and skepticism regarding Rocky’s attachment to an AIDS orphanage in India. But somewhere along the way, Hoover becomes as much of an advocate for those abandoned children as Rocky.

“I think people want to be moved — they want to connect, to care, to give," Hoover said. "I think there’s something inside of us that longs for these genuine emotions. If you find emotion in real life and you’re able to capture it (in a documentary), it’s real — and somehow this film is able to connect with people in that way.

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