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The Sundance 2020 Docs: The Process Was as Provocative as the Story

By Tom White

From Benjamin Ree's 'The Painter and the Thief.' Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The swan song for John Cooper, following his stellar, three-decades-long tenure at the Sundance Film Festival, including 11 years at the helm, was overshadowed in the doc space by two bookended happenings: The wedding, apparently officiated by filmmaker Sam Green, of Sundance Documentary Film Program Director Tabitha Jackson and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, to kick off the festival (the couple was introduced at the DFP party by DFP associate head Kirsten Feeley, to tumultuous applause), and, at festival’s end, the anointment of Jackson as Cooper’s successor.

And in between those mighty paroxysms of joy, there was the first Sundance of the 2020s, which delivered a smorgasbord of provocative work and revelatory discussions to keep the festival faithful smiling through the snowflakes.

What continues to rattle my mind in a good way is Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, by the equally challenging and entertaining Ross brothers, Turner and Bill. Back at Sundance for the first time since their 2015 border-and-genre-crossing Western, the Ross brothers set their sites on a Las Vegas dive bar, on its last night, as the setting for a self-contained sanctuary for the down-and-out. This is familiar territory for many an artist—Shakespeare's Falstaff made inebriated court-holding an art form in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, while Eugene O'Neill mined the bar for its fundamental despair and flickers of hope in The Iceman Cometh. And there was Edward Hopper's study of loneliness and longing in Nighthawks, which Tom Waits would take as an inspiration for Nighthawks at the Diner, in all its gravelly, well-past-midnight, Night Train-fueled, shaggy-dog tale-telling glory. I could sense the stardust from all of those artists in Bloody Nose—and you can throw in Eagle Pennell's Last Night at the Alamo for good measure.   

As the sun rises on The Roaring 20s, in walks Michael, a seeming fixture there, who, like all his fellow customers-cum-denizens, lost his way a long time ago. "I didn’t become an alcoholic until I became a failure," he quips, alluding to his long-lost acting career. And so begins the long, sad cavalcade of castaways, seeking refuge from an unforgiving world and finding sympatico among the barstool philosophers, yarn-spinners and conspiracy theorists. The alcohol flows steadily throughout the day and into the night, and cigarette smoke casts a sepia-soaked sadness on the proceedings. The bartender occasionally entertains the throng with apropos renderings of "Crying," and the jukebox selections seem to punctuate the spectrum of moods.

The Ross brothers filmed this tragicomic roundelay for 18 hours—until the last customer stumbled out into the blinkering dawn, the late-shift bartender shuttered The Roaring 20s for the very last time, and the credits rolled to Peggy Lee’s bittersweet “Is That All There Is?”

And then the filmmakers took the stage after the screening and unveiled the truth behind the truth: "The Roaring 20s," Bill explained, "is an invention. It's playing an invention of itself." The bar doesn’t exist in Las Vegas, where the documentary supposedly takes place, and where the interstitial b-roll scenes were shot; it's actually in New Orleans, and it's still open. And, I would later find out, Michael is a New Orleans-based actor, and the first-shift bartender is a professional musician there.

Hmmm. Bill continued to explain that he and Turner took an essay by George Orwell, in which he describes his ideal pub in 10 criteria, as their inspiration. Unable to find that perfect bar after years of searching, they "created a composite space for people to escape to…We utilized a construction to arrive at a reality that we couldn't get otherwise." And they filmed on the day after the 2016 election, when most of the country was distraught.

Despite the cultural, psychic and historical differences between New Orleans and Las Vegas (had Bloody Nose actually been filmed in Las Vegas and populated with Las Vegans, it would have had a different vibe), and despite the fabricated context of the last night of a fictitious bar on the darkest day of the decade, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets worked as an experiment in creating a community, albeit with one or two ringers (the Ross brothers had recruited their "cast" from their bar-hopping R and D),  and letting the narratives flow and coalesce as freely as the alcohol.

From Bill and Turner Ross' 'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.' Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Process was as much the story as the story itself in many of the offerings at Sundance. Into the Deep began as a completely different project for Emma Sullivan, who had planned a profile of Peter Madsen, a quirky, charismatic, maverick inventor of submarines, space-bound rockets and other gadgets—somewhat of a low-rent, Danish version of Elon Musk. But 18 months in, the project took the darkest turn: Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist who was writing a story on Madsen, accompanied him on his submarine—and then went missing, while Madden himself resurfaced. Sullivan’s film had taken a radical shift from profile piece to true-crime story, and she found herself in the middle of a murder investigation. Her footage up to that point now becomes a source of clues to Madsen's psyche for the viewer, as well as for the filmmaker (and for the prosecutors, who used the footage in Madsen’s murder trial), and Sullivan involves Madsen's once-admiring teammates as they run the emotional gamut from shock to dismay to revulsion to despair. As Madsen's texts, emails and hard-drive content shift from off-the-wall to downright creepy, and as Madsen himself confesses to Sullivan, months before the murder, "There is the possibility that you've actually come upon a human predator," one ponders the perils of overlooking the dark side of your documentary protagonist—until your documentary becomes something completely different.

Benjamin Ree's The Painter and the Thief is a different sort of exploration of the relationship between artist and subject. Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter who transplanted to Norway, having escaped a harrowingly abusive relationship on Germany, is the victim of a theft of two of her paintings. The thieves are caught, convicted and imprisoned, but the paintings are missing. But Kysilkova's quest is not so much to recover her work—although she is devastated to lose a part of her—as to understand the person who committed the crime. She asks him, "Can I paint you?" And so begins a fascinating, deeply intimate psychic journey between two maverick souls.

When she unveils her painting to the thief, he breaks down—in tears, in awe and perhaps in fear that she has, through her art, mined his soul and tapped into the deepest scars of a lifelong pain. The two maintain a singular relationship, bonded by an appreciation for the nobility of the outlier and the nomad. He signs off one correspondence to her, "Love from a decent criminal." To Ree’s credit, he secures enough trust from his protagonists—including Barbora's ever-patient boyfriend—to allow him into her therapy sessions and capture her intimacy with her work. Ree earned a Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling, and The Painter and the Thief recently secured worldwide distribution from NEON.

For Swiss-German filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures, entry into Saudi Arabia to investigate a film about the plight of women and girls there was not impossible—her visa application was rejected five times—but she did discover, through meeting a Saudi expat activist in Berlin, a closed chat group supporting women who were intent on leaving Saudi Arabia. Meures took a big risk and asked if anyone on the site were intent on escaping Saudi Arabia; 40 women, taking an even bigger risk, replied. After communicating with each of them online, she selected Mura, and, over the next several weeks, Meures gave Mura a crash course in guerilla filmmaking via smart phone.

The result is an intensely intimate, week-by-week film-and-escape-plot-in-progress, as Mura shares both her resolve to free herself from an oppressive regime and hopeless home life and her anxiety about the prospect of leaving her family and friends behind. The film is a riveting thriller, for sure, as each step to freedom is rife with serious repercussions. For Meures, one has to wonder, though: Given the crucial nature of her collaborative role in receiving and processing the footage, what is her responsibility towards Mura if the escape were unsuccessful? The film was picked up by National Geographic Films.

From David France's 'Welcome to Chechnya.' Courtesy of Sundance Institute

David France's Welcome to Chechnya also takes extraordinary precautions with the protagonists of the film, given the vicious anti-LGBTQ culture in Chechnya and in Russia. The film takes us along a series of bracing rescue missions in and out of Chechnya, to safe houses in Moscow, then on planes to undisclosed locations—all spearheaded by a team of intrepid expeditors/activists. As the story accelerates, France incorporates a series of uploaded videos of violence perpetrated against gay men, each scenario more excruciating than the previous one. To further protect his protagonists, France enlisted a digital expert on AI and machine learning to create a special software to alter their faces and incorporate face doubles, thus enabling the viewers to sustain an emotional connection that would otherwise be blunted by the traditional method of blurring faces and altering voices. France, in the Q&A that followed the screening, also explained that because of the significant risks in making Welcome to Chechnya, "We couldn't be a film crew. This was a guerilla project; we filmed in stealth method, using consumer cams, iPhone, body cams and GoPros." The film earned a Special Jury Award for Editing, for Tyler H. Walk, and will air on HBO in June.


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.