The following are a collection of some of the documentaries I saw during my stay at the Sundance Film Festival and my ‘take’ on them …
Freedom Summer will premiere on PBS’ The American Experience later this year, but I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of the finished doc at Sundance.
In the hot and deadly summer of 1964, the nation could not turn away from Mississippi. Over ten memorable weeks known as Freedom Summer, more than 700 student volunteers joined with organizers and local African Americans in an historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in one of the nation’s most segregated states. The summer was marked by sustained and deadly violence, including the notorious murders of three civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of thirty-five churches, and the bombing of seventy homes and community centers.
Freedom Summer highlights an overlooked but essential element of the Civil Rights Movement: the patient and long-term efforts by both outside activists and local citizens in Mississippi to organize communities and register black voters — even in the face of intimidation, physical violence and death. The Freedom Summer story reminds us that the movement that ended segregation was far more complex than most of us know.
ILC’s take: as a child of the post-Civil Rights era, I was fully aware of the Freedom Summer, I was not aware of the level organization and pre-thought that went into busing and embedding of the resources throughout Mississippi. While the first three-quarters dealt specifically with the social movement aspects of the summer, towards the end, Freedom Summer took a decidedly political tone, focusing on the efforts to democratize the state of Mississippi’s Democratic party to be more inclusive. In doing so, their efforts garnered national attention and became a bit of a thorn in the side of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who many may be surprised by his actions and reactions to what was going around him.
One in four American women experience domestic violence in their homes. Have you ever asked, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Private Violence challenges the stigma surrounding this presumptive notion as it intimately follows the stories of two women: Deanna Walters, who transforms from victim to survivor, and Kit Gruelle, also a survivor, who advocates for justice on behalf of Deanna and others.
ILC’s take: the screening was proceeded by a short, One Billion Rising, which captured moments from around the world in celebration of V-Day, the annual event that raises awareness to the global scourge of violence against women and girls. I like to think of it as more of a call to action that anything else. But onto Private Violence. This is a very intimate look at the world of women living in a very private hell made all the more impactful for that reason. The film does an effective job of going broad where it needs it but then pulling you immediately back in the here and now of Deanna’s ordeal. Inevitably a lot of issues surrounding how we, as a society, react and respond to cases of domestic violence. And while there are no easy solutions, this film (to air on HBO) gets the message out there and will hopefully be a clarion call to action.
No No: A Dockumentary
On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 136 years of baseball history, only 276 no-hitters have been recorded. Dock is the only pitcher to ever claim he accomplished his while high on LSD.
Dock was often at the forefront of controversy and has been called the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball.” He was an outspoken leader of a new wave of civil rights in sports, when black athletes were no longer content to accept second-class treatment or keep their mouths shut about indignities. The press labeled him a militant.After Dock retired from baseball, he was as outspoken about his addictions to alcohol and amphetamines (aka “greenies”) as he had been about racial prejudice during his career.
ILC’s take: Baseball stories always seem to work well on film, at least for me. The Dock Ellis story is a welcome addition to this subgenre. No No is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls that can overtake an otherwise promising professional career. But it is also a story of redemption and second chances that shows its audience that no matter the circumstances, one can take their experiences and have the lessons learned from said experience benefit others. Blended with a mix of humor and social commentary, I think No No will appeal to sports fans and those who appreciate documentary films alike.
Images and synopses provided by the Sundance Institute.
For some reason my review of this film has been sitting in my inbox for longer than should have. But never you mind, I am on it now so without further ado …
Image: Sony Pictures
To quickly recap, American Hustle is the latest outing for director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and is based in part the actual FBI ABSCAM operation (look it up for the deets) that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The films stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams as New York City con artists ‘strongly encouraged’ to work with agent Bradley Cooper or face the full wrath of the feds. Their job? To take part in a multi-layered sting operation to catch corrupt politicians in the act. One target is the popular mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner). Rounding out the cast is Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s neurotic wife, who among many of her idiosyncrasies, really loves the smell of a particular brand of nail polish. (Source: Wikipedia)
There are several things to like about the film, including:
- The performances: all the actors acquit themselves quite well., which should come as no surprise given the talent Russell has assembled.
- Authenticity: a problem with a film like this is that it can fall prey to is creating a lack of ‘trueness’ to the time and place presented in the story. From the costuming, hair, makeup, music, EVERYTHING frankly, American Hustle nailed the era down to a tee.
- Equilibrium: American Hustle balanced the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative very well. I know that it is a dramatization of actual events, but if there was an inkling of these happenings in the true account of the operation, I can easily see how the dramatic tension of the situation can be balanced with some levity. After all, truth is often stranger than fiction.
- Things are not always as they appear. There are some very pleasant (and unexpected) twists and revelations to the plot that will keep you engaged in where the story is going.
Now onto the bad(ish) news. Oddly enough, my reservations almost have nothing to do with the film itself as much as to my response to the praise and accolades thrust upon it subsequent to its release. I admit my bias but when I compare it to the other noteworthy films (that I have seen) of 2013, American Hustle lacks the gravitas of these films it is competing for several awards with. Is it entirely fair for me to base my reservations solely on this? As I stated, probably not, but it is a feeling that I had when leaving the cinema and has stuck with me ever since.
I hope in reading this assessment, your want to see this picture is not diminished, because, again, it is a really entertaining cinematic excursion. I only lead with this bit of advice: sit back and take it for what it is …
How do you feel about American Hustle? Hit the comments section to share your thoughts and views.
Life Itself is a documentary based on the late writer and film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. This Sundance Documentary Premier was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive produced by Ebert friend Martin Scorsese.
The film takes passages from Ebert’s memoirs and weaves them with interviews and footage from Ebert’s battle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. In a way, Life Itself is part biography/ part tribute, examining a man who lived life to its fullest and left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape by making the art of film criticism available and palatable to the masses.
To distill the documentary to its most resonant moments, presents quite a challenge for me. I never claimed or even thought I knew much about the man, beyond what I saw on TV or read on his website, but the level of depth and insight I gained, from his early rearing to his professional and personal triumphs and setbacks was very engrossing and well executed.
And as we the audience move through these various stages of his life, we get to a point where we see how he ultimately impacted and influenced others. An especially poignant moment that speaks directly to this is the story shared by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who recounts in the film her first meeting Ebert as a girl outside the Academy Awards and her remembrance of the kindness bestowed upon her then and years later as she emerged as an up and coming filmmaker.
Another part of the film that I liked was how to delved into the impact of Ebert’s popularization (commercialization) of film reviews and presented the critique many of his contemporaries had with how his success (re)defined the trade, which up until then, enjoyed a solidly didactic and academic reputation.
Particularly in the latter stages of his life, Ebert really embraced the populism that the ‘interwebs’ and social media provided in terms of everyone getting their message and opinions out there. I can only speak for myself when I say if not for this, I am sure I would not have 1) the agency or 2) the desire to express myself on this or any platform.
At the time of this writing, Life Itself does not have a theatrical distributor but the cable network CNN has television distribution rights and will air on their network following its theatrical release.
Check out the film’s official website for special screening events.