The Best Documentaries of Sundance 2017

We saw 14 great nonfiction films this year, and one not so great.

Jason Gorber
Feb 1, 2017 · 12 min read

There are only a handful of major festivals where nonfiction stands on equal footing with the “regular” feature films showcased. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, there were several regular films of note but a seemingly endless line of terrific docs to choose from, making this seem far more weighted in the direction of reality — coincidentally just as we felt the outside events of the world worth escaping. Time after time I’d see a film that would both enthrall and entertain, showing a tiny slice of the real in ways that were often startlingly fresh and original.

Besides one notable dud, the more than dozen nonfiction films I screened were all, in their own way, quite worthy of attention. Here are those best of the fest in no particular order:


Trophy

No film affected me as much as this remarkable work from Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau. Far, far too often, environmental docs are mere pablum that sates the self-satisfaction of the viewer, but with this startling investigation into big-game hunting the filmmakers demand their audience confront their preconceptions, whatever side of the debate they come in on. From the harvesting of horns of rhinos in captivity to giant Vegas conventions where one can pay to shoot pretty much whatever they want, it’s a look into a culture rarely seen on screen, yet tied to a very real need for both preservation of habitat and conservation of species. Gorgeously shot, impeccably assembled, and intensely provocative, this easily is one of the best environmental docs ever made and absolutely mandatory viewing, especially by those succored on single-issue activist docs.


Chasing Coral

While lacking the sophistication and ambition of Trophy, Chasing Coral nonetheless provides an important contribution to the discourse, showing an audience a view of the sea that the vast majority is never going to experience. As an avid diver, the scenes were familiar but no less spectacular as the filmmakers desperately tried to capture global “bleaching” events caused by abnormally high ocean temperatures. A good portion of the film follows failed attempts to automate the capture, resulting in the somewhat surreal position of wanting coral to die so that the camera systems would be proven to work. In the end, it took months of manual underwater capture, dive after dive, to witness one of the more shocking and troubling aspects of climate change. Yes, it’s a single-issue film, but it’s an effective one and may well lead some to join this particular fight before it’s too late.


City of Ghosts

In 2015, Cartel Land exploded out of Sundance, a preposterous project that somehow managed to capture the madness and complexity of both the cartel and the self-regulated militias who have taken it upon themselves to act as border agents. The Oscar-nominated Matthew Heineman returns with a no less impressive look at a group of Syrian journalists who risk not only their own lives but those of their family to bring their story of an occupied city to the world. Combined with astonishing footage shot by the members of Raqqa Is Being Slaughters Silently (RBSS), Heineman is able to capture intimate verite moments as the journalists seek shelter in safe houses away from the conflict zone. Profound and powerful, this is a highly personal film about those that truly seek to bring truth to power, undercutting the sophisticated propaganda of their oppressors. An examination of those willing to die in order to document, there’s no better tribute to the power of nonfiction than City of Ghosts.


Casting JonBenet

No doc annoyed me more at last year’s festival than the egregious, smug and self-satisfied Kate Plays Christine. Insulting and arrogant, the most egregious part is that the so-called “documentary” (really a fictive and manipulative performance piece) prevented me from seeing Christine, a far more truthful work that through a fiction lens nonetheless is both moving and emotionally rich. I need only look at Kitty Green’s spectacular Casting JonBenet to overtly show everything that last year’s film faltered at. As Green uses local actors to recreate key events reported in the murder of a young beauty contest, the film creates a tangled web of interconnections, with strange and wonderful characters who bring their own experiences and prejudices to the project. It’s a wonderful trip, a truly unique framework for tackling history where the truth is unknowable, providing both an aesthetic and epistemological framework. The filmmaking technique at once demonstrates the unknowability while still giving a sense of the truth of the matter. Powerful and profound without ever pretending to know more than its audience, Green’s work brilliantly captures in its unique style the multifaceted complexity of our reactions to this story that decades later continues to fascinate.


Dina

A love story like no other, this beautiful, subtle and engaging verité doc by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles is glorious. We follow Dina and her boyfriend Scott Levin, both living somewhere on the Asperger spectrum, as they become closer to one another, each struggling with their own mental challenges but finding within each other a partnership that will hopefully last. In quiet ways the filmmakers allow us to discover Dina’s past, her scars both real and virtual, yet never does the film dip into melodrama or exploitation. Beautifully cinematic with carefully composed shots, the work is a testament to patient filmmaking of remarkable subjects. With perhaps the most awkward yet wonderful foot rub in cinema history, this film is humorous without being risible to its subject, moving without being mendacious. A true synergy between filmmaker and participant, Dina is a delight.


Icarus

I always get excited when filmmakers have the confidence and tenacity to follow the story where it leads rather than impose their own preconceived notions of what their doc should be from the outset. Bryan Fogel started out making a film about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and in Super Size Me-style plans to be a human guinea pig to show their effects. After seeking professional assistance, he soon becomes connected with Russian anti-doping head Grigory Rodchenkov, which then leads to a series of events worthy of a spy novel. With impeccable storytelling chops, Icarus beautifully documents the events that led not only to the international condemnation of the Russian athletics system but also makes a strong case for how far up the Russian political ladder this all leads. While at times too easy to shine the light on institutional problems in Russia while deflecting American cheating as one-offs by bad athletes, the film nonetheless exposes in stark ways the underbelly of Olympic athletics. It’s a doc as chilling as any Cold War thriller, made all the more effective as the story continues to unfold.


Quest

Speaking of tenacious, this intimate and immediate portrait of a North Philadelphia family was shot over a decade, with the general arc beginning with the election of Obama and ending with last November’s Clinton/Trump matchup. Over that time period we witness changes in the community through the lens of those on the ground, the highs and lows of everyday life that speak to both a highly specific and wholly universal truth. Quest and his family overcome tragedy while striving for triumph. Quest’s music studio is one focal part of the neighborhood, where freestyle sessions overtly give voice to those not often heard. Jonathan Olshefski’s portrayal is photographically pure and immensely affecting, always allowing the temperament of his subject to dictate the tone of the film. A sterling example of patient and profound filmmaking, this verite marvel is one of the true great films of this nature in some time.


Step

Infectious and fun, this look at an all-girls charter school in Baltimore showcases both their athletic and academic prowess. Structured like a general sports documentary where the final competition serves as the “big game” at the end of the season, the film equally focusses on the remarkable experiment embodied by the Leadership School for Young Women whose mandate is to see 100% graduation rates and 100% college admission. It’s this additional component that breathes life into the film — far more than just a bunch of line dancers, these young women embody the strength and tenacity of character that’s been instilled thanks to their opportunities at the school. The dance takes on overt political character and shows a fierceness and determination that echoes their academic achievements. A feel-good film with a real message of hope and change, Amanda Lipitz’s film is both accessible and energizing, providing real insight into the lives of this remarkable group of young women.


In Loco Parentis

There’s something implausibly charming about In Loco Parentis, a stellar verité doc set in an Irish boarding school. The Latin refers to the lack of parent, namely the teacher who takes up the role of both educator and caregiver to their young wards. Neasa Ní Chianáin’s remarkable work shows that Wisemanian rumination can also be charming and entertaining, her roaming camera and gentle subjects at once inviting and complex. The boarding school Headford is itself very much a character, its creaky floors and tall windows, as well as the cave-like room where the music instruments are kept and the walls are painted in primary colors, all somehow getting into the bones of those that attend. Following some remarkable teachers and even more remarkable students, Ní Chianáin deftly negotiates a school year with acuity and grace, a film sure to warm even the most jaded heart as you see educator and pupil alike thrive by the end of the semester.


Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press

They changed the title of this Hulk Hogan trial doc soon before it played, as the events of the election swayed very much the focus of the film. Seeing it at the festival some 48 hours after Trump was sworn in was particularly surreal as the film managed to incorporate footage of the inauguration, making this surely the “newest” film of this year’s slate. Tracking the Gawker trial through its connection to billionaire blowhard Peter Thiel, the doc effectively lays out a cautionary tale for how the autocratic tendencies of a few are a real jeopardy to the free press. At a time when “fake news” has been re-appropriated by the liars as an attack on truth, and “alternative facts” are being trafficked by government spokespeople, there’s no film more chilling or timely about the fragile nature of our media than this one. Far more than simply a salacious story of a sex tape, Brian Knappenberger’s film is a siren cry for vigilance as a new normal for journalism in conflict with power settles in.


Oklahoma City

Another timely doc that does much to reset the discourse about terrorism in this country, this deft, well-executed examination of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 is mandatory viewing. What makes the film exceptional is not only its first-person accounts of the events of 20 years ago, but how they tied to both Ruby Ridge and Waco, events that continue to color political discourse to this day. Impeccably researched, this connecting-of-the-dots between various factions is even more vital today.


The Force

Yet another powerhouse piece that uses verite techniques to provide an immediacy with the subject, this one focuses on the Oakland Police Department. After years of corruption and neglect, the department is under federal oversight, and we witness real change as the community is brought in and officers are retrained in order to help reshape both the culture of the department and real-world practices. As the film proceeds further, complications and scandals plague the department, resulting in what seems like complex but promising solutions faltering as another challenge is faced. From frustrated members of the public to a growing reticence for those to participate, the film’s own growing challenges of access as things unwind underscore the very nature of such an investigation. In a case where there are no easy answers, The Force in both form and content exhibits this tremendously, providing a remarkable yet frustrating look at a system that’s far from complete in its reforms.


Whose Streets?

The events of Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown consumed news media for much of 2014, resulting in international demonstrations, the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and real calls for social justice from a community often silenced. To the film’s credit, Whose Streets? doesn’t attempt to fully account for everything that transpired, instead focusing on a few select individuals and showing their own reactions during the demonstrations. Sabaah Folayan and Sabaah Jordan, along with co-director Damon Davis, introduce us to a number of charismatic characters on the front lines of the movement. Numerous characters intertwine, and while this results in being somewhat scattershot it demonstrates stylistically the various voices that contributed to the choir of protest. With no intent to be definitive or an overarching of the various and competing narratives, the film instead serves as a kind of unique snapshot of various voices and participants, each with a story to tell. Through this series of intimate interviews we learn of the various facets of the lives of these individuals, together combining into a rich articulation of what lay behind the headlines. Long after the national cameras went home these were the ones calling for justice, and in many ways Whose Streets? serves as both commemoration and testament for their time at the forefront of the new civil rights movement.


Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

It may not be the most original or fancy of rock docs, but Rumble does something no less important in shining a light on an overlooked aspect of popular music. Spanning from the earliest days of rock and roll with the likes of Link Wray up through protest music by Buffy St. Marie, Americana by Robbie Robertson through to metal, funk rock, and hip-hop, the film argues successfully that the voice and beat of the indigenous is to be considered a fundamental part of the story of this music. A talking-head doc interspersed with some fabulous musical segments, combined with additional anthropological elements such as the ties to the Mardis Gras Indian culture, as seen in Treme, the film allows the viewer insight into these varying traditions and how they combine, sometimes in quite surprising ways, to help propel popular music to the heights it has achieved.


…and the worst?

An Inconvenient Sequel — Truth To Power

Forming a kind of coincidental trio with the other two environmental films above, this most egregious of docs is little more than a self-aggrandizing campaign commercial. Ostensibly a sequel to the Powerpoint-as-documentary of the first one, it not only gives little in the way of new information or context but aggrandizes its subject, Al Gore, rather than explores the very issue at the heart of what he’s campaigning for, the environment. We see Gore jet-setting, talking to executives and cajoling governments, but the sticky questions raised by everyone from Indian environmental ministers to sinister Republican senators are brushed aside as the film briskly moves on to his next meeting. Superficial and silly, the film is also in some ways dangerous, giving a false sense of security to those that the film preaches to that somehow watching this is a political act. The science is settled, there’s far more of concern than needing another seminar to prove it. Consistent mention of the Bush v. Gore supreme court battle feels particularly obnoxious when one practically pines for a politician of Bush’s ilk after what’s transpired this election season. And save for a tease of the former VP heading up that famous elevator in Trump tower, there’s nothing here to point a way forward other than what seems a pyramid scheme for seminar participation.

Nonfics

The documentary experts.

Jason Gorber

Written by

Jason Gorber is a Toronto-based film journalist and critic.

Nonfics

Nonfics

The documentary experts.

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