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Sundance succeeds with values-laden documentaries

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 12:55 p.m. MDT

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) 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.

Dissatisfied with his life, Rocky Braat finds purpose in "Blood Brother" by immersing himself in caring for orphans in India who have HIV. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival) Dissatisfied with his life, Rocky Braat finds purpose in "Blood Brother" by immersing himself in caring for orphans in India who have HIV. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

'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.

"Gideon's Army" is a documentary about the important role of public defenders in the criminal justice system. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival) "Gideon's Army" is a documentary about the important role of public defenders in the criminal justice system. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

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

"American Promise" follows the lives of two African American boys across the first 13 years of their formal education. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival) "American Promise" follows the lives of two African American boys across the first 13 years of their formal education. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

“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.

Dissatisfied with his life, Rocky Braat finds purpose in "Blood Brother" by immersing himself in caring for orphans in India who have HIV. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival) Dissatisfied with his life, Rocky Braat finds purpose in "Blood Brother" by immersing himself in caring for orphans in India who have HIV. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

“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.

“I’m not exactly sure what it is for each person that views it, but a lot of people have connected with the transformation I go through in the film as the narrator and as Rocky’s friend. I wanted people to follow me through my transition, and through me being impacted by him and his love for these kids.”

Distribution forecast: "Blood Brother" remains on the open market. The two awards Hoover picked up at Sundance make "Blood Brother" a lock to secure national distribution, and an early frontrunner for an Oscar nomination next year. But until someone does pick up "Blood Brother," there's no way of knowing when the film will hit theaters or premium cable.

In "Linsanity," NBA star Jeremy Lin speaks frankly and at length about his deep Christian faith. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival) In "Linsanity," NBA star Jeremy Lin speaks frankly and at length about his deep Christian faith. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Four more

“Blood Brother” may have taken home the biggest hardware available to domestic documentaries, but it’s far from the only film that nourished minds and hearts at Sundance this year. Along those lines, here are snapshots of four additional documentaries that similarly captivated festival audiences via positive messages and strong values.

Linsanity,” directed by Evan Jackson Leong. Upon becoming the starting point guard for the New York Knicks in early February 2012, Jeremy Lin scored more points in his first five starts than any player in NBA history. Owing both to the fact that Lin played in the largest media market in the U.S. and — as one of the first Asian-American NBA players — could instantly captivate the imaginations of millions of international basketball fans, a spontaneous phenomenon known as "Linsanity" ensued.

Throughout “Linsanity,” Leong captures the depth and breadth of Lin’s character — including the Christian faith that compels Lin to work hard and trust in God’s plan.

“Jeremy is a lot of things,” Leong told the Deseret News. “He’s Asian-American; he’s Christian; he’s from Palo Alto in the (California) suburbs; he’s an Ivy Leaguer. The goal of this documentary is to show how all these things built up to the person he is. … And I think through all of it, he would always say he’s a Christian first and everything else after that.”

Distribution forecast: As with "Blood Brother," "Linsanity" is still a de facto free agent with big appeal for distributors. And given Jeremy Lin's global popularity, international distribution rights could fetch a windfall.

Gideon’s Army,” directed by Dawn Porter. Public defenders are the attorneys who represent criminal defendants too poor to hire their own lawyers. There are about 15,000 public defenders in the United States, and this year they will take on more than 5 million cases.

Porter portrays public defenders as a noble breed of “true believers” committed to protecting the rights of poor people who are at risk of getting gobbled up by the criminal justice system. At Sundance, the film won the Editing Award for U.S. documentaries.

“I want (people) to know what great lawyers these young people are,” Porter told the Deseret News. “There are public defenders that are fabulous. … There is a hierarchy and snobbishness in the law that I think is destructive. A Wall Street job or a firm job is the sought-after prize, and yet these young (public defenders) are great. But they’re not getting any attention because they’re not at these prestigious schools and they’re not doing these jobs that are soul-sucking. People assume we reserve our best talent for high-paying clients, and it’s not true at all.”

Distribution forecast: "Gideon's Army" will air this summer on HBO. In the meantime, the New York Times' website has posted "True Believers in Justice," a six-minute video Porter created with exclusive footage from two of the principal public defenders in her full-length film.

Life According to Sam,” directed by Sean and Andrea Nix Fine. In recent years, the Fines have won three Emmys and been nominated for an Oscar. With “Life According to Sam,” they profile Sam Berns, a teenage boy with a rare disease called progeria that causes his body to show advanced signs of aging. Despite the fact progeria almost always results in death before the age of 18, Sam maintains a sincerely sunny outlook on life. Additionally, Sam’s mother, Leslie Gordon, blesses the lives of dozens of children by tenaciously working to find a viable treatment for progeria.

The Fines understand that in order for a film such as “Life According to Sam” to maximize its impact, the documentary needs to spark earnest dialogue like dinner-table discussions.

“We’ve found that (our other films) get to be successful when people leave the movie theater or screening and they talk about it,” Sean Fine told the Deseret News. “They talk about (the movie) at dinner, they talk about it for a couple days later and it makes them think about bigger things than what they just watched on the screen.

“And we’re getting that kind of reaction from people with ‘Life According to Sam.’ The kind of thing that’s really neat is you have this kid — who most of us if we saw him on the street would just stare at when he walked by and kind of wonder, ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ — and here he is causing people to think differently about their lives. That’s the power of filmmaking, and I think that’s the power of documentaries.”

Distribution forecast: HBO Documentaries owns the rights to "Life According to Sam." On HBO's website for the film, the status is listed as "coming soon."

American Promise,” directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson. The documentary follows two African-American boys — and their supportive families — across 13 years of the ups and downs that are an inevitable part of getting a quality education in the U.S. “American Promise” won a Special Jury Award for U.S. documentaries at the Sundance awards ceremony on Jan. 26.

The two boys, Idris Brewster and Sean Summers, journey from carefree kindergarteners to mature high school graduates. If the film’s portrayal of Idris and Seun feels particularly warm and affectionate, it's because co-directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson are not only married to one another, but also the parents of Idris. Throughout the documentary, the filmmakers wrestle with issues concerning their son’s education — making "American Promise" a film with which virtually all parents can easily identify.

Brewster, a psychiatrist with degrees from Stanford and Harvard, told the Deseret News, “We strongly believe that parents as well as educators have to be more demanding. … You have to demand that these boys achieve at a high level, and you have to give them some emotional support for that achievement at the same time. It’s a balancing act; it really requires seeing them as capable, as potentially able to be successful. And that’s complicated.”

Distribution forecast: “American Promise” will air on PBS this summer as part of the “POV” documentary series.

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company