As long as the news becomes immediate and urgent social topics being discussed on morning talking-head shows amidst constant updates, the documentary genre continues to thrive as extended newsmagazine segments exploring these issues. Such gut-punching reality and soul-stirring pathos provide fodder for this year’s Sundance documentarians.
Themes of the broken economy, the aftereffects of war and political uprisings serve up the few features being screened at the festival this year. But thankfully, a sprinkling of refreshing subjects pop up to enliven the landscape. Here are some of the documentary picks that range from a renowned performance artist to the beauty of glaciers.
Chasing Ice – When National Geographic photographer James Balog asked, “How can one take a picture of climate change?” his attention was immediately drawn to ice. Soon he was asked to do a cover story on glaciers that became the most popular and well-read piece in the magazine during the last five years. In this breathtakingly beautiful documentary, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski follows the indomitable photographer as he brings to life the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS)—a massive photography project that placed 30 cameras across three continents to gather visual evidence of the Earth’s melting ice.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Ai Weiwei is known for many things—great architecture, subversive in-your-face art, and political activism. He has also called for greater transparency on the part of the Chinese state. Director Alison Klayman chronicles the complexities of Ai’s life for three years, beginning with his rise to public prominence via blog and Twitter after he questioned the deaths of more than 5,000 students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The record continues through his widely publicized arrest in Beijing in April of 2011. As Ai prepares various works of art for major international exhibitions, his activism heats up, and his run-ins with China’s authorities become more and more frequent.
How To Survive a Plague – Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of mostly HIV-positive young men and women broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment. It is the story of two coalitions—ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)—whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. Despite having no scientific training, these self-made activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new drugs, moving them from experimental trials to patients in record time. With unfettered access to a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, filmmaker David France puts the viewer smack in the middle of the controversial actions, the heated meetings, the heartbreaking failures, and the exultant breakthroughs of heroes in the making.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present – Seductive, fearless, and outrageous, Marina Abramović has been redefining performance art for nearly 40 years. Using her body as a medium, and pushing herself beyond her physical and mental limits, Abramović creates emotionally provocative work that transgresses boundaries and expands consciousness.
With total access granted by Abramović and the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker Matthew Akers has created a visually luscious and mesmerizing cinematic journey that takes us inside the world of radical performance.
The Queen of Versailles – With the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, we follow billionaires Jackie and David’s rags-to-riches story to uncover the innate virtues and flaws of the American dream. We open on the triumphant construction of the biggest house in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles. Since a booming time-share business built on the real-estate bubble is financing it, the economic crisis brings progress to a halt and seals the fate of its owners. We witness the impact of this turn of fortune over the next two years in a riveting film fraught with delusion, denial, and self-effacing humor.
About Face – Portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s lush new film is an intimate view of the women whose images have defined our sense of beauty over the past five decades. An uncensored look at many of the biggest names in modeling, About Face reveals the stories behind the magazine covers displaying these multicultural pioneers. Each woman is candidly interviewed in the studio and shares her experiences, ideas on longevity, and philosophy of life in the fashion industry.
The Imposter – It’s 1994: a 13-year-old boy disappears from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three and a half years later, he is found alive, thousands of miles away, in Spain. Disoriented and quivering with fear, he divulges his shocking story of kidnap and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not what it seems. Sure, he has the same tattoos, but he looks decidedly different, and he now speaks with a strange accent. Why doesn’t the family seem to notice these glaring inconsistencies? It’s only when an investigator starts asking questions that this astounding true story takes an even stranger turn.