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Docs of the World: Global Nonfiction Thrives at Sundance

By Laura Almo

From 'Wall,' which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

The Sundance Film Festival is known for exposing audiences to films they otherwise might not have a chance to see. It is also a launching pad for many films that go on to have robust theatrical and broadcast lives. More and more people are familiar with American documentaries that got their start at Sundance--in fact Super Size Me and this year's Oscar winner, Born into Brothels, were both favorites at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

But with fewer opportunities to see docs from abroad, Sundance audiences are far less familiar with world documentaries. That changed this year when the festival, having showcased world documentaries as a stand-alone strand over the past three years, launched the World Documentary Competition. The festival programmers reasoned that a competition would garner more coverage and attract a larger audience for world docs. "Documentaries are such a big part of the festival, and we really embrace them," says Diane Weyermann, the director of the Documentary Film Program at the Sundance Institute and one of the main forces behind the world documentary programming at the festival. "They've always been treated very respectfully, sort of on par with the feature film work, and it made sense that we also create a space for international documentary work."

The competition showcased 12 films that traversed six continents, crossing physical and psychological borders and covering emotion terrain in ways both stirring and poignant. To be sure, world docs exude a different aesthetic from their American counterparts. "Coming from different traditions of just taking time and watching things unfold, they're slower, they're more visual and there's a certain kind of poetry in their approach to storytelling," Weyermann explains.

Take Michale Boganim's film Odessa Odessa (Frederic Niedermeyer, prod.). This poetic voyage is a trilogy that begins in Odessa, Russia, travels to Little Odessa in New York City and concludes in Ashdod, Israel. The unhurried pace of the film and its exploration of memory, nostalgia, home and exile may very well be a tip of the hat to Andrei Tarkovsky, whose signature slow camera movements, long takes and powerful images figured in his Nostalgia, which explores the melancholia of an expatriate.

Wall (Simone Bitton, dir.; Thierry Le Nouvel, prod.) is as much a portrait of the wall that separates Israel and occupied Palestine as it is a rumination on its contradictions, enclosing some while imprisoning others. The winner of a Special Jury Award, this thoughtful, controlled film allows for ample contemplation and reflection. In one sequence the discussion is about the "security fence" as an obstacle to the other side, while the images on the screen show a portion of the "fence" painted with trees while real trees tower above. It's nearly impossible to watch this film without getting a very real picture of the human cost of this "security fence."

The Grand Jury Prize went to Leonard Retel Helmrich's Shape of the Moon (Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, prod.), about three generations of a Christian family in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. The film captures the sights, sounds, smells and rhythms in the daily life a family living on the outskirts of Jakarta. It's the small details that make up a life; the patient camera work and sophisticated sound design present a richly textured and very real view of life in Indonesia.

Sean McAllister's The Liberace of Baghdad was also awarded a Special Jury Prize. The film shows the human side of the war in Iraq through Samir Peter, Iraq 's most famous concert pianist, who is holed up in a Baghdad hotel waiting for a visa to the United States. The film offers a view of life in Iraq that American audiences so seldom get to see.

Peter Raymont's Shake Hands with the Devil (Lindalee Tracy, prod.) won the World Documentary Audience Award. The film is an incredible portrait of Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the United Nations commander in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Dallaire tried to prevent the systematic killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda but, with little support from the UN or western countries, he was up against an impossible situation and his mission was doomed to fail. The film follows Dallaire on a trip he made to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide. Intertwining the history and politics of Rwanda with Dallaire's own story, the film underscores the pain and torment Dallaire experiences over his inability to stop the genocide.

Shake Hands with the Devil isn't an easy film to watch. But Sundance is about turning people on to films with an edge, films that push the limits. "We're really looking for the strongest, most powerful work that's out there," asserts Weyermann. "Put it out there and let people see it; I generally feel that people will respond to it."

Weyermann came to Sundance in 2001 from the Open Society Institute (OSI), where she was the director of the Soros Documentary Fund. The fund, which focused on human rights and social justice, was reconfigured, under the auspices of the Sundance Institute, as the Sundance Documentary Fund. Weyermann says that the move from OSI to Sundance was beneficial for everyone in terms of being able to expand the program in ways that probably would not have been possible at OSI.

With Weyermann at its helm, the Documentary Film Program has grown so that it now supports projects both financially through the Sundance Documentary Fund and in the creative process with the Sundance Labs. Weyermann's vast knowledge and approachable style make the process for filmmakers who are producing with Sundance's support a constructive and gratifying one. Participating in the lab system gives filmmakers a chance to work with advisors and make the strongest film possible, explains Weyermann. Two of the Sundance labs are specifically for documentaries--The Documentary Composers Laboratory and the Documentary Edit and Story Laboratory. "We specifically focus on editing because that's a crucial stage of the process," Weyermann explains. "And we focus on music as an element of storytelling and how it can enhance the story because that was something that virtually nobody was looking at."

And of course the Sundance Film Festival is a massive platform for exposing these works. Wall and El Inmortal (Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez, dir.; Puy Oria, Montxo Armendáriz, prods.) were both supported by the Sundance Fund.

Competition for financial support is fierce. The Sundance Fund receives about a thousand applications a year and funds between 20 and 30 projects. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and are reviewed twice a year. Weyermann explains that proposals go through a two-pronged review, and if a project passes both internal reviews then it goes on to a final review by a grant-making committee.

Sundance is perhaps the best-known film institution of its kind in the United States, but it is really part of an international community of documentary festival directors, commissioning editors, distributors and sales agents that shares the common goal of supporting and promoting strong, high-level international documentaries. "We really benefit from working together and keeping one another in the loop," says Weyermann, who regularly attends an assortment of international festivals and conferences.

This year's response to the World Documentary Competition at Sundance affirms that there is interest in and enthusiasm for international documentaries. "It's tremendous work," says Weyermann. "It's beautiful, it's moving, it's powerful and it reflects issues and stories about parts of the world that we know very little aboutand that enriches the whole festival."


Laura Almo was a screener in the World Documentary category for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. She has also taught Real Stories, Sundance Institute's Youth Documentary Workshop at Spy Hop Productions.