During a typical Sundance, I see a lot of documentaries. There are two primary reasons for this. One, the documentaries may be far less likely to show up in some commercial release down the road. And two, the documentaries are generally less likely to suck. The best films in the Documentary Competition regularly top the best films in the Dramatic Competition, and the worst films in the Documentary Competition are never as hideously pointless as, say, Adrift in Manhattan. (Note: I will only stop hating on this movie when I learn definitively that it will never be foisted upon a paying public.)
But this year, for some reason, I haven't made a concerted effort to see a lot of the docs. Maybe it's because I found it hard to work up enthusiasm to sit through movies about Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Darfur, Hiroshima, etc. Sundance can be enough of an endurance test without the weight of Western civilization's guilt adding to the burden.
As it turns out, there have been some truly innovative documentaries this year. It just took me a week to see several of them. Zoo certainly broke new ground structurally, but it just didn't work for me. Far more effective twists on traditional documentary forms are Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) from director Jason Kohn, and Jessica Yu's Protagonist. The former is a visually impressive, thematically rich exploration of Brazil's culture of corruption, violence and kidnapping. It's staggeringly depressing to watch the growth industries that have emerged out of the epidemic of kidnappings -- bulletproof cars, under-the-skin tracking devices, ear-replacement plastic surgery -- but Kohn fashions something fascinating to watch (though sometimes hard to watch, as when we watch one of those ear-replacement surgeries start to finish).
Protagonist similarly does amazing things with a simple idea: The life story of four men, no apparent connection between them. Using the building blocks of classical Greek drama as her foundation -- and nifty carved puppets as the Greke chorus -- Yu explores how something as seemingly random as a human life can be shaped into a narrative when you search for common threads. Also, one of the film's subjects, Mark Salzman, is such a damned hilarious dude that I'd watch a documentary about anything if he were a significant part thereof. (Scott Renshaw)