Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sundance: More Black and White

[Film Fest] Sundance documentaries this year want us to know that we still live in a very race-divided society. Thank you, Sundance documentaries. In other news, the sky is blue.

I kid Sundance documentaries, because I love. But I would love a lot more of them this year if they weren’t so dependent on their premises, and not on what the filmmakers are able to do with those premises. The Order of Myths begins with a fascinating footnote: the way the city of Mobile, Alabama holds two distinct Mardi Gras celebrations, one historically all-white and the other historically all-black. At times, director Margaret Brown captures that distinctively Southern capacity to justify nearly anything because of its connection to “history” and “tradition;” it’s jaw-dropping watching members of all-white “secret societies” putting on masks and hoods as though their revelry could have no other possible connotation. But ultimately there aren’t truly compelling characters to carry the film beyond everything it told you in its first 15 minutes.

Trouble the Water – in which Tia Lessin and Carl Deal follow Hurricane Katrina survivors Kimberly Rivers and Scott Roberts for 18 months before, during and after the ordeal – proves to have at least a little more intriguing subtext. The “before” and “during” part is the real hook, as New Orleans Ninth Ward resident Rivers used her personal camcorder to chronicle her neighbors’ preparations, and their two days trapped in an attic before taking a boat to safety. The footage is undeniably gripping, and narrowing the impact of the disaster – both natural and bureaucratic – to these individuals provides a distinct perspective. But Trouble the Water actually proves more interesting as a portrait of community, including the band of survivors that becomes a makeshift family for Rivers and Roberts. The country may have let New Orleans down, but it brings a little lump to the throat watching the way those who lived there refused to let each other down. (Scott Renshaw)

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