The Big Chill

Documentaries reach middle age at the Sundance Film Festival

An Injury to One and Long Gone stood out from the pack of Park City docs not only for their Twin Cities connections and their focus on concerns unspecific to fiftysomethings, but for their lack of pre-established broadcast-television deals. (At least a dozen documentaries screened as de facto sneak previews in advance of airing on TV.) Another doc that came to town without a small-screen date in place is Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, whose well-deserved Grand Jury Prize stands to bring it even wider exposure. Equal parts found-footage treasure trove and reality-TV-style mindfuck, Friedmans burrows into the case of a Long Island family's spectacular collapse in the late '80s, when patriarch Arnold, followed by his youngest son Jesse, was brought up on multiple charges of child molestation. Blessed with old TV news clips, present-day interviews, and, remarkably, the family's own startlingly combative home videos from around the time of the two sentencings, Jarecki juggles his wealth of material to such a degree--to a fault, arguably--that the viewer reaches film's end feeling more doubtful than ever of the accused's culpability. In the absence of focus, the thin blue line remains a big fat blur.

Taking similar content to opposite extremes in Stevie, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) renders a painstakingly personal look at the title character: an immeasurably troubled working-class felon with a propensity for passing his history of abuse along to others. Come to think of it, maybe all of the docs at Sundance are connected. Indeed, James's voiceover explication of Stevie's "Snake" nickname ("the feared--some would say evil--reptile with the hard, scaly exterior...") nearly appears explicated itself in Jennifer Baichwal's The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia, whose thorough investigation of unconscious classism in art is fascinating, perhaps particularly so for critics. And yet debates over representation seem trivial in relation to a pair of purely devastating AIDS-crisis docs at the festival: Elaine Epstein's State of Denial, named for the South African president's persistent view of HIV infection as unrelated to the disease; and Weijun Chen's To Live Is Better Than To Die, which questions its own title by maintaining close proximity to a young Chinese family's grueling battles with sickness unto death.

Busted: Jesse and Arnold Friedman (with officer) in 'Capturing the Friedmans'
Hit the Ground Running Films
Busted: Jesse and Arnold Friedman (with officer) in 'Capturing the Friedmans'

Whether I'm right that the latter of these might even be beyond criticism (it has so far remained beyond distribution), To Live Is Better Than to Die certainly makes the young subjects of Jamie Johnson's buzz magnet Born Rich--those named Newhouse, Trump, Whitney, Bloomberg, and, indeed, Johnson--appear even more obscene than they would otherwise. At press time, a Rich publicist confirmed that Johnson and company were "obviously in a bunch of talks" with distributors--as befits a film, a festival, and an industry that have largely to do with keeping fortunes in the proper hands.

« Previous Page

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!