Our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival continues with this look at five documentaries that premiered at the Fest a few weeks ago.
Many of these may receive distribution or television deals (if they haven’t already; see our notes below), so you can know what to watch for in the coming year with these handy capsule reviews, which use our patented Sundance Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide:
SUNDANCE VIEWING PRIORITY LEVEL GUIDE:
VPL A = An absolute must-see. Monitor film and entertainment news sites religiously to see if this picture will be widely released, and then plan to be first in line to see it.
VPL B = If you’re in a movie mood and your first choice is sold out or not playing at your nearby theater, this picture is a wholly acceptable substitute. It’s not stellar, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, and it won’t be a waste of your time.
VPL C = If you need to escape a family argument, duck out of work to take a break, or fill a few hours on a long and lonely rainy day, there are probably worse ways to spend your time than seeing this picture, though not many. It’s flawed, and you’ll forget about it instantly, but it’s not totally dreadful, and it has at least one or two minor reasons to recommend it.
VPL D = Don’t even think about it. Avoid at all costs. Your time, money, and sanity are too valuable to waste on this dreck.
Here’s our take on five Sundance ’17 documentary films:
1.) Long Strange Trip
(USA 2016, 235 min. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Category: Documentary Premieres)
Berkeley’s own Amir Bar-Lev, whose previous Sundance docs My Kid Could Paint That (2007) and The Tillman Story (2010) were Grand Jury Prize nominees, returns this year with this story born and bred in his native Bay Area: a four-hour documentary about the legendary Grateful Dead. A treasure trove of never-before-seen concert footage, recordings, photo stills, and wide-ranging interviews with band members and crew, contemporaries, friends, relatives, and fans (super fan Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) makes an appearance – who knew), Long Strange Trip is sure to be a long, fun pleasure for devoted Dead fans and rock history aficionados alike. The doc is by no means a primer on the band, however; it definitely presumes a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer, so those seeking a more formal, chronological introduction to the Dead might want to look elsewhere (Mike Fleiss’s excellent and more narrowly focused doc on guitarist Bob Weir may be a good starting point). Although some extraneous material definitely could have been cut — there are way too many old Frankenstein movie clips for my taste (lead guitarist Jerry Garcia was apparently a fan in his youth) — the film holds up as a probing and fascinating look at the social and cultural landscape of the Dead’s early start and heyday. And the section on the impact of Garcia’s untimely death will have even the most casual Dead fan reaching for the Kleenex. VPL: A- (Long Strange Trip will air on Amazon Prime on May 26th as four one hour episodes.)
(USA 2016, 97 min. Directed by Jennifer Brea. Category: U.S. Documentary Competition)
What would you do if you found yourself completely debilitated by a series of symptoms that many doctors insisted were all in your head? Harvard Ph.D. student Jennifer Brea decided to make a documentary about her experience. After enduring a high fever at age 28, Brea was never the same again; she experienced chronic symptoms, including mental confusion, loss of speech, and physical weakness to the point of immobility. Brea was eventually diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), also more commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Brea’s film looks at the varying medical opinions on the disease, as well as its lack of federal research funding, and how this absence of consensus and interest affects sufferers and their families and friends. An interview with a Danish family whose severely ill daughter is forcibly removed by the state “for her own good” is absolutely chilling. Co-written by documentary writer Kim Roberts, Brea’s film isn’t always easy to watch, as it not only offers us unflinching access to bed-ridden, seriously ill and depressed patients, but also often appears to be on the precipice of navel-gazing. But Brea’s desire to champion the voices of those who aren’t always believed is admirable, and she ultimately succeeds in shining a light on a critically misunderstood and medically mysterious disease. VPL: B+
3.) Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
(Canada 2016, 103 min. Directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana. Category: World Cinema Documentary Competition)
The influence of Native American music and artists on the contemporary rock scene has not always been properly acknowledged, and director Catherine Bainbridge and first-time writer Alfonso Maiorana rectify that oversight in this breezy and illuminating documentary. A great introduction to the contributions of Charley Patton, Link Wray, Peter La Farge, Robbie Robertson, Randy Castillo, Buffy Sainte-Marie and others, Rumble takes its name from the revolutionary and much emulated guitar technique created by Wray. Interviews with other luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Bennett, Taboo, Joy Harjo, and Adam Beach provide appealing and engrossing commentary on a topic music history fans probably know too little about. The film meanders somewhat, occasionally feeling like an unconnected string of mini-biopics, but the artists’ stories are so absorbing that the slightly scattered narrative (as well as some oddly placed, unnecessary animation) is forgivable. Rock doc lovers won’t want to miss this one. VPL: B+
4.) The Force
(USA 2017, 93 min. Directed by Peter Nicks. Category: U.S. Documentary Competition)
Another Sundance doc with a local angle, The Force is the new film from Oakland-based writer/director Peter Nicks, who won a slew of awards back in 2012 for The Waiting Room, his cinema vérité look at Oakland’s Highland Hospital emergency room. Nicks intended to make a similarly styled doc about the Oakland Police Department when he first started this project back in the fall of 2014; what he couldn’t anticipate was the series of scandals and personnel changes that would rock the Department. As such, the doc makes for utterly compelling viewing, especially for Bay Area viewers familiar with the recent titillating headlines about the Department. That said, however, Nicks has made an exceedingly fair and balanced film; if he’s taken a side or an agenda, you won’t see it overtly stated here. By presenting extensive footage and interviews with residents, beat cops, and OPD and city officials (including former Chief Sean Whent, current OPD Public Information Officer Johnna Watson, and Mayor Libby Schaaf) and by filming both police academy training classes and actual on-the-job police work, Nicks lets viewers make up their own minds about OPD’s past, present, and future mistakes and successes. Thoroughly thought-provoking and highly relevant, The Force is a must-see film not just for Bay Area viewers, but for everyone interested in the current national conversation about police and community relations. VPL: A
5.) Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities
(USA 2017, 85 min. Directed by Stanley Nelson. Category: Documentary Premieres)
With 2003’s The Murder of Emmett Till, 2014’s Freedom Summer, and 2015’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, all of which also had Sundance premieres, writer/director Stanley Nelson has established himself as an eloquent and thorough chronicler of 20th century African-American history. His success on the topic continues with this newest offering, a look at the origins and history of historically Black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs. Nelson’s new documentary (co-written by Marcia Smith) takes us on a journey from the complete illegality of slave education to the current state of modern HBCUs like Howard, Tuskegee, Spelman, and Florida A&M. Along the way, various and often conflicting views on African-American education are explored, with particular attention paid to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Using a Ken Burns-like style of narration and source-reading over archival photos, Nelson’s film also features a plethora of informative and entertaining interviews with historians, students, and alumni. Briskly paced and enlightening, Nelson’s film will appeal to lovers of both rarely told historical stories and well-crafted documentaries. VPL: A (Tell Them We are Rising will air as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS in the fall, and will be playing film festivals in the interim.)