SUNDANCE 2012: DOCUMENTARY MISSION CRITICAL
There is a longstanding debate in the non-fiction filmmaking community about the nature of documentary films; is the mission of the documentary to tell the truth and nothing but or do the requirements of cinematic storytelling allow for flexibility in the service of story? As a passionate viewer of non-fiction filmmaking, I have always drawn a line between cinema and reportage; on the one hand, reality must provide the underlying structure of documentary film, but unlike news gathering and reporting, films should have the license to manipulate things like chronology and the way in which information is presented in order to create a cinematic reality. Great documentary films put an entire arsenal of cinematic effects to use in order to tell a great story — sound, music, editing, cinematography — but nothing is more important than a strong point of view, a storytelling perspective that allows for the creation of art.
Creating a balance between the information a story requires and the cinematic style that allows for the artful presentation of that information is the greatest challenge that most non-fiction filmmakers face. At this year’s Sundance, it is clear that, through the deployment of cheaper and smaller filmmaking technologies, artistry in non-fiction filmmaking has moved front and center. It is no longer enough to be an impassioned advocate for a cause or a subject; there are so many filmmakers who have developed into great visual storytellers that the bar has been raised to new and welcome heights.
At the top of the list for me at this year’s festival are two films that come down on opposite ends of traditional documentary storytelling, but each of which creates an intensely engaging cinematic experience for viewers. At one end of the spectrum, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man is the epitome of brilliant constructed documentary storytelling. The tale of forgotten 1970’s folk artist Sixto Rodriguez and the unexpected community of fans that love his music, Searching For Sugar Man had all of the potential in the world to be a traditional act of cultural reclamation from an admiring filmmaker. Instead, Bendjelloul uses gorgeous cinematography to establish location and tone, gently underscoring the emotional life of his subjects with Rodriguez’s songs, music that never fails to elevate the storytelling. There are incredible shots of the South African coastline and the decaying landscape of Detroit coupled with gorgeously photographed interviews with the film’s subjects that allow Bendjelloul’s narrative structure, which is built upon a series of unexpected revelations, to always feel believable and, crucially, deeply moving. This is a character study that goes well beyond traditional hagiography; framed as a mystery that spools itself into a story of working class triumph, Searching For Sugar Man soars as cinema.
On the other end of the spectrum, David France’s incredible How To Survive A Plague is another act of reclamation, a reclamation of the history of the political struggle to force a solution to the AIDS epidemic. For my generation (I am 41 years old), AIDS remains a seminal issue; the ghastly indifference of the international political system to the epidemic was a real and, in my own case, deeply disillusioning statement about the way in which silence and inaction could be as powerful a tool in oppression as enforced bigotry. When an entire community of activists came together to battle the silence and indifference that surrounded the “gay plague,” the rules of direct political action were changed forever. ACT UP did so much more than simply create famous political theater; by setting specific goals for drug research, health trials, prevention and care, all while engaging in direct medical research, these activists took the problem of finding a cure for AIDS into their own hands.
Using copious amounts of archival footage that showcases the rich complexity and organization of ACT UP, How To Survive A Plague establishes a vital alternative history of the AIDS crisis, one built by the voices and hard work of everyday people. Through its thrilling blend of archival and interview footage, the film is almost a case study of the ways in which non-fiction storytelling can make history engaging.
France weaves his story between the chronology of the race to cure the disease and the political battles inside ACT UP itself. With so many of the film’s most compelling subjects infected with HIV, How To Survive A Plague is quite literally a story of self-preservation, which allows it to operate on multiple levels at once — a history of a terrible disease, a race against the clock, an examination of political action, a study of organizational politics, a document of struggle and triumph — each of which France not only honors through his narrative structure, but which play a vital role in the film’s emotional meaning as well. It could not be more timely; as the rise in activist work in the age of Twitter and Facebook continues to redefine the process of creating direct political action, How To Survive A Plague is a searing reminder of the hard work and political will required to affect profound change. No one in the past half-century has had a political impact like the queer community as it rallied around a cure for AIDS; How To Survive A Plague is proof that activism can produce meaningful, incredible, transformative results. All credit to David France for telling that story in a way that honors its complexity while still inspiring hope.