In selecting the 120 offerings at the Sundance Film Festival, "We show the films that are on filmmakers' minds, especially in the documentary films," festival director John Cooper told reporters on opening day in Park City, Utah.
While issue-driven documentaries continue to be a focus of the festival — guns and abortion are among the topics at this year's 10-day session — filmmakers increasingly are looking at celebrities and newsmakers as source material, with subjects ranging from Michael Jackson in the early days of his career to the life and work of noted Austin independent filmmaker Richard Linklater.
"What we really notice is the changing face of documentaries in general," Cooper said. "(Filmmakers are using) animation, really clever reenactments and clever graphics to tell the stories quite differently. Documentary filmmakers are thinking of the theatrical, how to grab audiences and bring them in."
Among the documentaries featuring celebrities I viewed were ones about the creator of some of television's most groundbreaking series, a poor little rich girl who has a lived a fascinating life and a politician with promise who threw it all away with his abuse of social media.
Norman Lear deserves better
The first film to kick off the festival is usually a winner, as Sundance seeks to open with a bang by showing its best stuff. Think Twenty Feet From Stardom or Searching for Sugar Man, both of which won Oscars for Best Documentary and were opening night winners at Sundance.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You had all the markings of a buzzy opening night film: the 93-year old subject, two veteran filmmakers, and appearances in the film by George Clooney, Jon Stewart, Rob Reiner and Amy Poehler. Yet the story of the genius who created such ground-breaking TV shows as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and other blockbuster TV series somehow fell flat.
In the opening day press conference, Robert Redford cautioned about leaning too much on technology and gimmicks rather than the story. Perhaps filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady should have paid heed to that admonition rather than use a 6-year-old actor as a constant prop to illustrate Lear’s early life.
Additional weaknesses included no background on how Lear learned to write, how he got from New York to Hollywood, or any mention of his high profile divorce from his first wife (who used some of her settlement to found a successful serious women’s magazine, Lear), and no interviews with any African-American TV producers about Lear’s impact on the stories they tell today. But because it was Lear, who at 93 is still sharp and witty, the film evoked an emotional response when he appeared on stage at the end of the film.
In the question and answer — always the best part of Sundance — Lear said that Donald Trump represents America’s disgust with all politicians and that Eisenhower was an outstanding president who surprisingly is totally ignored by Republicans, most surely because of his warning about the “military-industrial complex.” One wonders how this interesting, brilliant, funny and pioneering subject might have fared in the hands of a documentary maker who would have let the story tell itself.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will be screened on PBS later this year.
What's left to say about Gloria Vanderbilt?
Rarely does a son have an opportunity to produce a documentary on his mother — and have it be the hottest ticket at Sundance. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper did just that in Nothing Left Unsaid, a vulnerable, tender and exhaustive documentary on his mother Gloria Vanderbilt, heiress to the Vanderbilt fortune and in the public eye for over 80 years.
You know a film is hot when Redford himself introduces film director Liz Garbus (“Her father was my lawyer when I was a young actor living in New York,” he explained) and Cooper.
And what a worthy subject for a documentary! Vanderbilt dated Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes. She acted, she modeled. She started her own fashion business in the late '70s and is a surprisingly talented painter —even today at age 92.
Vanderbilt meticulously kept every letter, drawing and newspaper clipping about her life. Much of the documentary centers around Cooper and Vanderbilt sorting through rooms filled with her paintings and memorabilia with Cooper interviewing her on the details. The documentary at 108 minutes is a little long but you can not help but fascinated by the life Vanderbilt lived, charmed by the funny and charming interaction of Cooper and his mother and the palpable love between the two.
Nothing Left Unsaid will premiere on HBO in April along with the publication of their joint memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son Talk About Life, Love, and Loss.
Hotdog! A revealing political documentary
Weiner is a doozy of a documentary detailing Anthony Weiner's attempt to run for mayor of New York after resigning from Congress in 2011 due to his graphic sexting scandal. Making an attempted political comeback, Weiner was leading in the polls when reports surfaced of additional interactions with female admirers on social media.
Interestingly, when filmmaker Josh Kriegman, who was formerly Weiner's chief of staff, approached Weiner about the idea of a documentary, he was agreeable because it offered a chance at political redemption. Instead his campaign imploded as he became a punch line once again.
Even though we know how things will turn out it is hard to not be totally absorbed by the interaction between Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin (the beautiful intelligent senior staff assistant to Hillary Clinton), the disappointment of his staff and the anger and ridicule he suffered from the voters.
The film is maddening, funny, sad and so thought provoking that it may be used as future case study for campaigns. Aside from the laughs at all the tabloid headlines that scroll across the bottom of the screen (my favorite is from the one from the New York Post: "Weiner: I’ll Stick It Out”), deeper issues are raised about how the press goes for the easy and titillating with no nuance, as Weiner points out.
Even so, it is hard to feel much sympathy for Weiner who never explains why he would humiliate his wife so completely or take full responsibility for his actions. In the post film Q&A, director Kriegman said Weiner had not watched the documentary yet and the film had nothing to do with Clinton's campaign.
Weiner will be shown on Showtime in the April.
CultureMap editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh contributed to this article.