Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sundance 2009: Alumni Association

[Film Fest] One of the things that makes the Sundance Dramatic Competition such a fascinating gamble every year is that, with few exceptions, the filmmakers are unknown quantities. Not so with the documentaries -- and this year in particular, it feels like homecoming week. Davis Guggenheim, who improbably turned Al Gore into a rock star in An Inconvenient Truth, returned to follow actual rock stars Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White in It Might Get Loud. Liz Garbus (The Execution of Wanda Jean) has Shouting Fire; Doug Pray (Hype!, Scratch) has Art & Copy; and of course the Yes Men are back in the house.

Joe Berlinger has made four previous Sundance appearances, with some of the most compelling documentaries of the last 20 years (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). So it's hard not to be a bit disappointed that his latest, Crude, feels more like late-model Sundance advocacy filmmaking without much spark. His subject is certainly worthy: the 15-year battle of Ecuadoran attorney Pablo Fajardo to get restitution for oil contamination of the Amazon Basin by Chevron/Texaco. Berlinger dutifully allows the corporate spokespeople their face-time to argue that they didn't do nothin', but the film ultimately comes down to one of those "fight against the big, dark corporate system" movies. And as important as this issue might be, Berlinger doesn't do anything with it cinematically. He's had a gift over the years of making documentaries that are about more than their ostensible subject. He's not the guy who should be spending time shooting Police reunion concert footage just because Sting's wife is on the side of his protagonist.

Similar expectations surrounded a return visit from Ondi Timoner (Dig!), but she delivers big time. We Live in Public does what the best documentaries have always done: Find a compelling subject, explore its deeper context, and make it interesting movie art in the process. Her subject here is Internet visionary Josh Harris, who anticipated the YouTube/Facebook/24-hour webcam generation years ahead of his time, including some groundbreaking experiments in online voyeurism. If Timoner had done nothing but chronicle the life of the enigmatic Harris, she would have had an intriguing movie on her hands. But she also prods at some of the puzzles of an online world that allows people who feel unseen in real life to expose way too much of themselves. It's gripping as biography, as cinema, and as sociological history. Come back again any time, Ondi. (Scott Renshaw)

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