Sundance Diary, Half 3: Documentaries That Don’t Despair

Sundance Diary, Part 3: Documentaries That Don’t Despair

AO Scott, our critic in general, keeps a journal while attending the virtual Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Wednesday. Read part 1 and part 2.

Saturday, 12 noon: Brooklyn is currently two degrees warmer than Park City. In theory, the Sundance experience at home could seem more authentic, but then again, I haven’t left the house since the festival started. It’s not a very lonely endeavor. My wife is a loyal screening companion until sleep overtakes her. Occasionally our daughter joins us. The dogs doze through everything. The cat hates movies.

Every film festival is self-curated to a certain extent. Nobody can see everything, and the comprehensive judgments and thematic statements that characterize the coverage of these events are always based on partial information. Maybe it’s the lack of audible buzz, familiar home environment, or technology, but this version of Sundance feels especially subjective.

For some reason, I’ve spent most of the past 24 hours watching documentaries. It wasn’t exactly the plan, but on Friday a path seemed to open from Zimbabwe to Sweden to California and from politics to celebrity to fire. And every time I’ve had the choice between fiction and reality, a window to the world, which is strangely perceived as the more attractive form of escapism.

I started with Camilla Nielsson’s “President” on the Zimbabwean presidential election of 2018, the first since the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, who had ruled the South African nation since 1980. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, retained control of both governments and the electoral commission. Nielsson and her crew were embedded in the opposition MDC, the subject of their earlier film, Democrats, which followed their 40-year-old candidate Nelson Chamisa through meetings, rallies and a deepening crisis. The manner in which this film is confronted with the fragility of democracy and the ever-looming possibility of violence struck this American viewer in a shocking and humiliating way.

I found “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” both haunting and enigmatic. Directed by Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri, it is a psychologically investigative portrait of Björn Andresen, who was cast as a teenager in “Death in Venice”, Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella from 1971. The film presents a grim chronicle of drift and catastrophe, much of which – provocatively, if not always convincingly – is attributed to the trauma of Andresen’s early fame. In investigating how it was exploited and objectified in the name of art, the filmmakers venture into an ethically problematic area and test the boundary between intimacy and invasiveness.

Friday’s observation ended with “Bring Your Own Brigade,” Lucy Walker’s relentless forensic investigation into some of California’s most terrifying wildfires. The first section of the film is an almost unbearable immersion in terror, including emergency calls and cell phone videos that capture death and destruction in real time. Walker, a British transplant sensitive to her underdog status, is fueled by an effective blend of empathy and intellectual curiosity in trying to understand the ecology, economics and politics of fire.

As the narrative shifts from one disaster to its consequences – which inevitably also marks the beginning of the next round of disasters – the scope expands, even if the camera continues to focus on local events and individual stories. In a way that I can’t fully explain, but which I think will be clear when you see it, “Bring Your Own Brigade” strikes me as one of the early, definitive films on the current pandemic, a subject that Walker saw hardly mentioned.

In this respect, the film is not entirely without hope. This is in part because documentary making is inherently optimistic, or at least not desperate. It is a form that is often interested in stories of struggle and perseverance, like the one that started my day: Pedro Kos’ “Rebel Hearts” about a group of nuns in the 1960s who resolved to become the Archbishop of Los Angeles and the Vatican hierarchy opposed combining religious engagement with the challenges of the time. Before this film, I had never heard of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and now I can’t stop thinking about them. So I can go on with the documentaries for a while.