by Tim Gordon
The following films will be in competition for the top prize in the U.S. Documentary category this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
(Director and screenwriter: Robert Greene) – It’s 2017 in Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper-mining town just miles from the Mexican border. The town’s close-knit community prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Bisbee’s darkest hour: the infamous Bisbee Deportation of 1917, during which 1,200 striking miners were violently taken from their homes, banished to the middle of the desert, and left to die.
Crime + Punishment
(Director: Stephen Maing; screenwriters: Stephen Maing & Ross Tuttle) – Meet the NYPD12: a group of minority whistleblower officers who risk everything to expose racially discriminatory policing practices and smash the blue wall of silence. Crime + Punishment is a captivating and cinematic investigation into the New York Police Department’s outlawed practices of quota-driven policing and officer retaliation. Using secret recordings between officers and commanders, firsthand accounts, and emotional testimony, the NYPD12 detail the explosive truth when no one else will listen. In the meantime, Manuel Gomez, an ex-cop turned private investigator, collects testimony from young minorities who have been affected by these policies and targeted by officers in the name of fighting crime.
(Director: Kimberly Reed; screenwriters: Kimberly Reed & Jay Arthur Sterrenberg) – Montana has spent more than a century trying to keep its politics clean. After a brazen attempt by copper magnate William A. Clark to bribe his way into the United States Senate, the state prohibited corporate campaign financing in 1912. Everything changed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling in 2010, which classified campaign expenditures by corporations as free speech and allowed donors to remain undisclosed. As a result, unlimited, anonymous “dark money” began to flood elections nationwide. In Montana, even conservative incumbents have found themselves facing coordinated smear campaigns to sway the electorate toward candidates more in line with corporate interests. But the citizens of Big Sky Country won’t allow democracy to be dismantled without putting up a fight.
(Director: Amy Scott) – Although Hal Ashby directed a remarkable string of acclaimed, widely admired classics throughout the 1970s—Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, Being There—he’s often overlooked amid the crowd of luminaries from his generation. Scott’s exuberant portrait—drawn from rare archival materials, interviews, personal letters, and audio recordings—explores that curious oversight, revealing a passionate, obsessive artist. Having hitchhiked to LA, Ashby eventually landed in the editing room, where a chance encounter with Norman Jewison brought his big break (and a lifelong friendship). Ashby’s subsequent films were guided by compassion and deep engagement with social justice, class, and race.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
(Director and screenwriter: RaMell Ross) – How does one express the reality of individuals whose public image, lives, and humanity originate in exploitation? Photographer and filmmaker RaMell Ross employs the integrity of nonfiction filmmaking and the currency of stereotypical imagery to fill in the gaps between individual black male icons. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a lyrical innovation to the form of portraiture that boldly ruptures racist aesthetic frameworks that have historically constricted the expression of African American men on film.
(Director: Laura Nix) – Indonesia, India, Mexico, Hawaii, and many other countries, communities, and islands are rife with the ravages of environmental degradation. But hope comes with a surprising—and touching—group of young people. Meet six brilliant high school students as they prepare for the world’s largest high school science competition: the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Inspired by the issues and problems they’ve witnessed in their own communities, these teens propose big ideas and ingenious solutions to the world’s environmental challenges. With unfettered minds and ambition, they descend upon Los Angeles to participate in ISEF and meet thousands of their peers from all over the world. Soon, a sense of global community forms, focused on making the world a better place.
(Director: Derek Doneen) – Hidden inside overcrowded factories around the world, countless children are forced into slave labor due to rising global demands for cheap goods. With the help of a covert network of informants, Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi and his dedicated team carry out daring raids to rescue and rehabilitate imprisoned children. Using hidden cameras and playing the role of buyers at the factory to gain access, we watch Kailash take on one of his most challenging missions to date: finding Sonu, a young boy trafficked to Delhi for work who has been missing for eight months. Now his father dreams of Sonu coming home.
Kusama – Infinity
(Director and screenwriter: Heather Lenz) – In 1958, a fledgling yet fierce young Japanese artist moved to New York City after writing to Georgia O’Keeffe to express admiration and seek guidance on how to break into the New York art scene. Miraculously, O’Keeffe wrote back, and an emboldened Yayoi Kusama left behind what she considered the conformist culture of Japan to assert herself in the Big Apple. Inspired by the 1960s American political and social revolution, Kusama’s avant-garde innovations garnered notoriety but little fame or success as she pioneered audacious and unprecedented soft sculptures, staged nude Vietnam protests, and fashioned dazzling polka-dot creations.
Minding the Gap
(Director: Bing Liu) – Welcome to Rockford, Illinois, the heartland of the post-industrial rust belt of America. But more importantly, welcome to the revelatory work of Bing Liu, an electrifying new voice in documentary filmmaking. Bing, 24, returns home and reconnects with his friends Zack and Keire, whom he’s been skateboarding with since childhood. Archival recordings of their former glory coupled with current interviews and extraordinary skateboard footage tell the story of three young men who banded together to escape their volatile families. As they grow up before our eyes, unexpected revelations threaten to crash their decade-long friendship.
On Her Shoulders
(Director: Alexandria Bombach) – Mobbed by iPhone cameras and pushy reporters, 23-year-old Nadia Murad leads a harrowing but vital crusade: to find the most influential platforms in the world and speak out on behalf of the embattled Yazidi community who face mass extermination by ISIS militants. Having narrowly escaped with her own life, Nadia must now relentlessly recount on radio shows, at rallies, and even on the floor of the United Nation’s general assembly her ordeal as a Yazidi sex slave and witness to her family’s brutal killings. Though excruciating, she forces herself to revisit these realities again and again. For without her testimony, the genocide happening right in front of the world’s eyes might go completely unnoticed.
(Director Sophie Sartain & Roberta Grossman) – To some, Gloria Allred is a money-grubbing, shrill feminist prone to tawdry theatrics; to others she’s the most effective and fearless women’s rights attorney in America. In this intimate, warts-and-all documentary, one thing is certain: Allred’s 40-year devotion to asserting, protecting, and expanding the rights of women is unwavering and her influence unassailable.
The Devil We Know
(Director Stephanie Soechtig) – In 1945, DuPont introduced Teflon to the marketplace and changed millions of American households. Today, a biopersistent chemical used in the creation of those products is in the bloodstream of 99 percent of all Americans.
The Last Race
(Director: Michael Dweck) – Riverhead Raceway is a rare beast. For decades it has hosted showdowns between local residents who bring their Mad Max–inspired stock cars to do battle on a quarter-mile track, passions spilling out of the cockpit when the checkered flag drops. Forty such tracks used to exist on Long Island alone. Today Riverhead is the last. Acclaimed photographer Michael Dweck’s evocative portraiture turns the raceway into a theater of catharsis while the track’s owners struggle to maintain an American tradition as a real estate boom surrounds them.
The Price of Everything
(Director: Nathaniel Kahn) – Basquiat paintings regularly fetch tens of millions of dollars, and the recent sale of a little-known Da Vinci topped $450 million—but what forces are driving the white-hot art market? Who assigns and who pays these astronomical sums? What currency adequately measures art’s value? The Price of Everything leads us into a rarefied labyrinth of galleries, studios, and auction houses to wrestle with these questions and explore what society loses and gains when art becomes a rich person’s commodity.
(Director: Rudy Valdez) – Drawing from hundreds of hours of footage, filmmaker Rudy Valdez shows the aftermath of his sister Cindy’s incarceration for conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend—something known, in legal terms, as “the girlfriend problem.” Cindy’s 15-year mandatory sentence is hard on everyone, but for her husband and children, Cindy’s sudden banishment feels like a kind of death that becomes increasingly difficult to grapple with.
Three Identical Strangers
(Director: Tim Wardle) – New York, 1980: Three complete strangers—Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman—make the astounding discovery that they are identical triplets. Separated at birth, adopted, and raised by three different families, the 19-year-olds are reunited by chance. Their story sets the tabloids on fire, and the triplets suddenly become famous around the world.