The Sundance Film Festival named its 2017 award winners Saturday night, as the Grand Jury dramatic prize was given to I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore a quirky comedy starting Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey as a two offbeat neighbors who try to exact revenge for a home burglary.
Dina, an uplifting love story about the relationship of an autistic couple, nabbed the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary.
Audience awards went to Crown Heights, a drama about a young black man’s false imprisonment and his best friend’s 20-year fight to free him, and Chasing Coral, a documentary about climate change. Crown Heights was bought by Amazon (no release date set). Chasing Coral (no release date set) and I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore were acquired by Netflix with the later premiering in February. Dina has not yet been acquired.
While it was a less-than-stellar Sundance for this reviewer, who has been covering the festival for seven years, three documentaries stood out.
The lessons of Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City is a chilling and riveting documentary that revisits the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building that killed 168 people, including 19 children, and remains to this day the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. The film opens with helicopter views of the immediate aftermath where one-third of the building was decimated, as one of the survivors asks, “Who could have done something like this?”
At first law enforcement officials had no leads, but the film traces their investigation to , anti-government extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
Even though you know who did it, the story ferrets out new information and provides context to this terrorist act. Filmmaker Barak Goodman moves from the rescue effort back into time to tie McVeigh’s mindset to the government standoff with the siege of religious leader David Koresh’s Waco Branch Davidian complex exactly two years earlier and to other pro-white, pro-gun and antigovernment movements.
The film effortlessly shifts from the aftermath of the attack to the psychological DNA of McVeigh to the Waco siege, as well as to the 1992 FBI confrontation with a white supremacist at Ruby Ridge. The film doesn’t shirk from assigning responsibility and portrays the FBI as overreaching at times. While McVeigh was not a card-carrying member of any of the nearly 900 hate groups that exist in the United States, he was clearly influenced by them. While the groups vary, they are all linked together by hatred of the government.
After the film ended, a bombing survivor who lost her six-month-old son and a law enforcement officer who rescued survivors from the debris spoke about the lessons of Oklahoma City. Their presence was inspirational and left many audience members in tears.
Although done well, the film crams a lot of information into 98 minutes. It seems like it would be better presented as a multi-part TV series like the OJ Simpson: Made in America documentary, which is a favored Oscar contender.
Oklahoma City airs on February 7 on PBS.
Icarus indicts International Olympic Committee on doping scandal
Icarus, a riveting documentary — really two documentaries in one — has been one of the most talked-about films at the festival. In the aftermath of biker Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel decided to film himself undergoing a doping regimen to improve his performance and prove how easy it was to foil the international drug testing authorities as he prepared for amateur cycling’s toughest race, the Haute Route. Fogel enlisted Russia’s anti-doping director, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, an English speaking, loquacious, likeable “character,” to assist him.
The first part of the film is something only a diehard cyclist would relish — urine samples, training and many injections. But it starts to take on the qualities of a whistleblower thriller when Rodchenkov and his lab are placed under investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Fogel helps Rodchenkov quickly defect to the United States.
Rodchenkov leaves his family behind but brings brings three hard drives of evidence that corroborate his confession that he administered performance enhancing drugs to Russian athletes, which was sanctioned by Putin. The film details the expulsion of Russian athletes from the 2016 Summer Olympics (some were reinstated) and Rodchenkov's entry into the Witness Protection Program. He is currently awaiting a decision whethe U.S. officials will continue to provide him with protection.
At the conclusion of the film, Fogel delivered a scathing and impassioned indictment of the International Olympic Committee, stating that the widespread doping has tainted the Olympics. Coincidentally, the computer systems of the Sundance Film Festival were hacked the day after the film’s premiere, adding another element of unease to the story, with some questioning if the Russians were involved.
Icarus was acquired by Netflix with no release date set. It won the highly covet Orwell award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Step ends Sundance on a high note
Sundance can be bleak and dark, yet there are always a few “feel good” films that brighten the festival. I was fortunate that my last Sundance film hit that magic space of capturing the heart and reaffirming the belief that everyone can have an impact.
Step follows an inner-city step team as they enter their final year at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school for at-risk girls that aims to have every graduate attend college. The film follows three students as as they work on college applications and seek to win a regional step competition. Each has her own challenges — lack of money, an unstable mother, no food at home — but exhibit courage and motivation. Each wants a better life than her parents had. They are also blessed with a committed and caring school counselor and an inspirational step team coach.
The feel-good film has a happy ending — which seems like a rarity in this day and age — and the stepping and music is joyfully infectious. When one step team member receives her acceptance and full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University on screen, the entire theater audience erupted in enthusiastic applause.
After receiving a standing ovation, director Amanda Lipitz introduced the counselor and step team coach whom she had flown in from Baltimore. They spoke about the bond they had established with the girls that transcends the high school experience and will last a lifetime. They reaffirmed how one person can make a real difference in someone’s life. And they said that the girls were all doing well in college.
Fox Searchlight acquired the film with a release date planned for later this year. As part of the acquisition, Fox will be showing the film to high schools nationwide, which will no doubt inspire students who want a better life and teachers who can change a student’s life through mentoring.