Time was when you could show up for almost any documentary screening at the Sundance Film Festival 30 seconds before it started and take your pick of empty seats. Now, as the indie institute turns 25 in a blaze of glitz, it’s a heartening measure of both the lively energies of nonfiction film and its embrace by all kinds of audiences that the docs I attended at this year’s festival were sold-out events, with lines of hopeful standby ticket holders freezing their tails off outside. Distribution is another story, unless, as last year’s pickups showed, there’s a gimmick (penguin parents) or a hot-button issue (Enron crooks) on tap. As I write, Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay, a playful, briskly commercial peek into crossword-puzzle culture as channeled by New York Times puzzlemaster Will Shortz, was bought by IFC films, and there is preliminary word that God Grew Tired of Us, a festival hottie I didn’t see about Sudanese refugees in the United States, may be picked up by ThinkFilm. Meanwhile, TV Junkie, the story of a TV journalist’s dark side, has landed overseas rights. So far as I know, no distributor has taken an interest in the extraordinary Iraq in Fragments, Seattle filmmaker James Longley’s poetic essay on ordinary Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds trapped in a war simultaneously waged over their heads and in their faces. Longley, who spent two years getting to know his subjects before he began filming, is far too smart to finger America alone as the culprit; in its intimate, small-scale way, the movie probes the religious, ethnic and political fissures that, exacerbated by the war, may permanently slice the country into three entities — if not more.
Though it ended up carrying off three festival awards (directing, cinematography and editing), Iraq in Fragments may well be unmarketably complex. So thank heaven for Sundance, which provides eager audiences, scads of publicity on the billowing blog scene and an even chance at a PBS pickup if you’re not already snagged by HBO — as photojournalist Lauren Greenfield was for Thin, a study of female eating disorders as absorbing as it is alarming. Greenfield spent six months hanging around a Florida treatment facility, focusing on a small group of young women (two of whom, now discharged but still struggling, bravely but nervously took part in a post-screening Q&A) as they struggled to recover from a range of food phobias. Though her vérité shooting style is on the rough side, Greenfield’s sympathetic yet incorruptible film is not just an unflinching look at these young women’s herculean fights to overcome the influence of their biology, fashion mags, parents with their own fucked-up and usually undiagnosed eating pathologies, and the demands of life itself — but also an examination of a whole milieu in which the center’s staff, while clearly dedicated, are often as manipulative as their patients, and in some cases a lot more power-hungry. Most of their clients are appallingly young, especially one heartbreakingly lost and — yes — exasperating teenager who, at the end of it all (or, at least, when her health insurance runs out), still insists that her problem is that she weighs too much. Like many anorexics and bulimics, she’s only 15, but watching this profoundly unsettling movie reminded me of a Toronto Film Festival dinner I was invited to years ago at a fancy restaurant, to which a famous movie star, then probably in her early 60s, showed up with an 18-year-old boy on her arm (I’d like to believe he was her son) and a Tupperware container full of unadorned lettuce at which she glumly picked all evening. Unless you’re partial to matchsticks in Versace, she looked terrible.
Though his subject matter is very different, if hardly less political than Greenfield’s, Yoav Shamir’s terrific account of last year’s unexpectedly peaceful Israeli pullout from Gaza, 5 Days, similarly shows how a gift for access, and an anthropologist’s patience for nosing around your subject till it yields unexpected meanings, does nine-tenths of the work. An unabashed leftist whose earlier Checkpoint was the toast of the film-festival circuit, Shamir manages to bring home the passions that ran high between the settlers and the army while remaining open to nuance on both sides, usefully complicating public images of the army as warrior bureaucrats and of the settlers as intransigent zealots. Asked by an audience member how he felt about the successful pullout, Shamir answered wryly, “As a peacenik, I was glad things went smoothly. As a filmmaker, I was hoping for more trouble.”
It was a singularly light Sundance year for Holocaust documentaries — a good thing given how the Shoah has become an arena for lazy, reverential or self-referential retreads of material that’s becoming dangerously familiar. Still, I’m obsessed, so I showed up for Rex Bloomstein’s KZ, despite being put off by his grandiose claim (in the press notes) to have revolutionized the Holocaust documentary by focusing on ordinary Austrians in denial of their past. Claude Lanzmann and many others might reasonably beg to differ, but still, this dependable social study by a BBC filmmaker of the townsfolk of Mauthausen, the picturesque site of a former concentration camp, has at least one pitifully fascinating character — a tour guide at the local memorial to the camp’s victims, who’s consumed to the point of self-destruction by his work. Portrayed by Bloomstein as an ambiguous hero, to me this man is an exemplar of the kind of Holocaust porn — an obsession with ghastly minutiae that blots out the big picture of the Nazi project — that we see in all too many films on the subject, fictional or otherwise. It may be high time for documentarians of the Holocaust to pause and take stock, before they drown us all in detail.