This Documentary Matters: 5 Sundance Films to Watch

The Sundance Resort in Utah. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Private condo parties for celebrities, swag suites for social media stars and multi-million dollar distribution deals headline media coverage of this year’s Sundance film festival. Yet it was a single statement by fellow documentary juror Michele Norris that summed up the power of this event.

“This documentary matters.”

Norris, the familiar voice of NPR and proprietor of the online Race Card Project, made the statement about 3 1/2 Minutes, one of five movies that the U.S. Documentary Jury (comprised of Norris, Kirsten Johnson, Gordon Quinn, Roger Ross Williams and myself) honored over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance, which ended over the weekend in Utah, has the proven track record of taking ideas by indie filmmakers and catapulting them to national awareness. Movies that are celebrated by juries or critics at the festival are quickly thrust into the spotlight during the 10 day festival and can find wide acclaim (witness the attention for Oscar and Spirit Award nominees this year such as Boyhood, Whiplash and Love Is Strange).

On stage at the festival’s awards ceremony on Saturday, fellow juror Kirsten Johnson — the accomplished cinematographer and director (Citizenfour, The Oath) — noted that our jury spent eight hours on Friday night deliberating the prizes that we would present to five films to cap the festival. Our amicable, extended conversation included detailed discussions about the new American movies in competition. We took our time, after we’d determined the winners, to craft statements based on our conversations. The remarks would detail the decisions and introduce the winners to the stage to accept their award the following night.

Sixteen American documentaries were selected by the Sundance Film Festival’s programmers to compete for prizes this year. We were asked to select a single grand jury prize, name a best director winner and present four special jury awards at our discretion. The U.S. competition documentaries — Marc Silver’s 3½ Minutes, Daniel Junge’s Being Evel, Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon’s Best of Enemies, Bobcat Goldthwait’s Call Me Lucky, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold, Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel’s Finders Keepers, Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus’s Hot Girls Wanted, Alexandra Shiva’s How to Dance in Ohio, Jean Carlomusto’s Larry Kramer in Love & Anger, Jimmy Chin & E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s Meru (winner of this year’s audience award), Louie Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction, Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)error, Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K. Walker’s Welcome to Leith, Bill Ross & Turner Ross’s Western and Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack — offered a wide array of styles and subjects and wider audiences will surely have a chance to discover many of these movies for themselves later this year.

The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle.

The Wolfpack

In awarding Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack Sundance’s top doc honor, we called it, “A film that surprised us all.” Indeed, Moselle’s portrait of a group of sheltered New York City boys who use their vivid imaginations to imagine an outside world, is nearly unbelievable. Moselle was walking down the street in New York when she saw the boys. She’d found her subject and put herself on a path to Sundance the moment that she approached them to find out more about them. The kids were living with their parents in a Lower East Side apartment where they would meticulously recreate scenes from favorite movies and had rarely ventured outside into the real world before Moselle’s camera entered their home and changed their lives forever. “A subject matter this unusual may invite scrutiny,” we added in our jury statement (presented on stage by fellow juror Gordon Quinn from Kartemquin Films), “Yet the celebration of the power of imagination reflects the spirit of Sundance.” The film was acquired by Magnolia Pictures during the festival.

Cartel Land, directed by Matt Heieneman.

Cartel Land

Matt Heineman’s Cartel Land, which looks at both sides of a Mexican-American border zone where drugs and guns are driving vigilantes to take matters into their own hands, drew two awards from our jury, a best director award for the filmmaker and a best cinematography prize for Heineman and Matt Porwoll. “Anyone who has ever worked as a director knows what it took to make this film,” we noted in our statement (delivered by juror and Oscar winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, director of God Loves Uganda and Music By Prudence). “The award goes to a director who had the courage to pursue a story that developed with unexpected complexity. His confident hand takes us into a world where we see both brutality and grace.”

While watching Cartel Land you immediately realize that the efforts to capture its compelling images were quite harrowing. Shoot outs captured by Heineman and Porwoll play like staged battles seen in modern war movies such as The Hurt Locker or American Sniper. “The risks a documentarian with a camera faces are physical, emotional and ethical,” we expressed in remarks presented by juror Kirsten Johnson. She knows the trauma of such work. “These cinematographers navigate it all, allowing us to care deeply about people while creating images that propel us through a landscape of nightmares.” In an exceptional personal touch, Johnson noted that it was “with profound respect” that we’d selected the honor for Matt Heineman and Matt Porwell. Reps for the film are currently negotiating a distribution deal for the film.

(T)error, directed by Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe

(T)error

First time feature directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s feature precariously places the filmmakers in between opposing forces within a domestic surveillance operation, illuminating an underreported aspect of the war on terror. The two handle an unfolding, unpredictable scenario with an assured deftness. “At its core the Sundance film festival is about discovery,” we explained in our statement, “In their feature film debut these filmmakers dare to expose a story that powerful forces would rather keep hidden.”

Western, directed by Bill & Turner Ross.

Western

With past films such as Tchoupitoulos and 45365 brothers Bill and Turner Ross have been working together to observe American life. In Western the brothers immerse themselves in two small towns on opposite sides of the Mexican-American border to witness the lives, images and experiences of residents increasingly impacted by the hazards of the drug war. “We recognize the restraint of filmmakers letting image and sound speak for itself,” the jury said in honoring Bill and Turner Ross with a special jury award for verite filmmaking.

3 1/2 Minutes, directed by Marc Silver.

3½ Minutes

A film about the shocking 2012 Black Friday shooting of Jordan Davis by Floridian Michael Dunn, 3½ Minutes unfolds in a state where Stand Your Ground is the law of the land. We honored the documentary, which has the power to ignite a vital discussion at a crucial moment, with a prize for social impact. Michele Norris delivered the following jury comments on stage Saturday night to celebrate the new documentary:

If you’ve paid attention to the news this year you know that we are a nation in crisis. As a jury we feel it is important to recognize a film that because of the close collaboration between the filmmaker and their subjects lets the audience examine that crisis. It allows the audience consider its consequences and invites us all to consider this difficult question: Why are young black men so often the objects of fear?

This documentary matters.

When Michele Norris uttered those words to our group late Friday night during our deliberation we went silent, and then quickly exploded in support. She had captured our feelings perfectly. And when Ron Davis, father of the murdered teen, accepted the award for 3½ Minutes with his wife Lucia McBath on stage the following night, he concluded his speech with the words, “Black Lives Matter.” He repeated the phrase over and over and over drawing applause and then a standing ovation from the awards night audience.

After the ceremony, Jordan Davis’s parents told me that they hoped the recent acquisition of the film by HBO, coupled with this award at Sundance, would fuel a movement to support the movie and hopefully challenge Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute.

The U.S. Documentary Jury at the 2015 Sundance Film festival: Gordon Quinn, Roger Ross Williams, Michele Norris, Kirsten Johnson and Eugene Hernandez.

I’ve been asked many times about the experience of serving on the Sundance jury this year. It certainly wasn’t easy to select such a small group of films to receive awards but the experience was both enlightening and educational. Serving on the jury during this twenty first trip to the festival afforded me a chance to deeply consider just one program within this essential American festival and witness a wide array of subjects and approaches. I’m honored to have been asked to join such an illustrious group of jurors and know that the way I think about the documentary form has evolved thanks to the opportunity to watch and discuss the Sundance Film Festival’s Class of 2015. Congratulations to all of the filmmakers selected to screen at this year’s festival and deep gratitude to my fellow jurors for a memorable and meaningful ten days together.

Eugene Hernandez (Twitter: @eug) the Deputy Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center , Co-Publisher of Film Comment Magazine and a founder of Indiewire.