PARK CITY, Utah – Every Sundance Film Festival has its own sense of happening — or, in some cases, not happening — and Sundance 2020, which started Jan. 23, feels like one of the latter. That isn’t to say it’s a bad year, just not hugely exciting, with few, if any, movies that people have arrived in town desperate to see.
And that’s OK. A film festival runs in cycles, and low-energy years can be good for sniffing out discoveries. Or going to the documentaries, which are almost always fantastic here. The current festival even kicked off with a documentary, albeit a glitzy one, “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana,” about the life, times, and politicization of one Taylor Swift.
Swift was present for the opening-night screening, and her mega-wattage briefly eclipsed any other stars who may have been in Park City. The movie, co-produced by Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”), was well-received by audiences and arrives on Netflix Jan. 31; its Sundance appearance is essentially a publicity push.
For that reason, I skipped “Miss Americana” in favor of ”Crip Camp” — another Netflix pick-up, ironically — which brightened up what’s often a poky first-film-of-the-festival slot. Despite the dodgy title, it’s the definition of a feel-good movie, about a Catskills summer camp for disabled kids that in the early 1970s became a seedbed for a generation of disabled-rights activists who, in turn, ultimately helped push through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Because a “people’s video crew” captured the 1971 season on half-inch tape, directors Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham are able to immerse us in the personalities that will dominate the film — including Lebrecht himself, born with spina bifida and seen arriving at Camp Jened ready to be a rebel teen.
The footage is revelatory, including a month-long occupation of the Federal Building in San Francisco in 1977 and a “crawl-in” up the stairs of the US Capitol. But “Crip Camp” works because it’s about the people behind the cause, and while there are many moments of joy and sadness here — the Sundance audience was in tears from both more than once — it’s the rare film that offers a sense of hope.
Another doc at Sundance 2020 offered a more ambiguous but no less moving story. “The Painter and the Thief,” from Norway’s Benjamin Ree, follows the Oslo-based Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova; as she decides to befriend Karl-Bertil Nordland, the junkie who stole two of her eerie, photorealistic artworks from a gallery. What at first seems like a really, really bad idea becomes an increasingly compassionate portrait of a platonic relationship between two troubled souls, with Ree withholding information from the audience until he can spring it to maximum effect. The gambit works, and his film’s final images pack an emotional wallop as strong as I‘ve ever experienced at this festival.
“The Painter and the Thief” came to Park City looking for a US distributor, and the positive buzz spreading out from its screenings means it’ll surely find one. Bryan Fogel, the director of “The Dissident,” wondered aloud at his screening if any company would have the nerve to distribute his thorough, deep-dive documentary about the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi in Istanbul’s Saudi Arabian consulate in October 2018.
The film is as slickly put together as Fogel’s 2018 Oscar-winner, “Icarus,” but the gloss doesn’t obscure the film’s outrage at the brazen assassination, nor does it blunt the case that Fogel and his team painstakingly assemble and that leads directly to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Interviews with Turkish forensic police and prosecutors, a dogged UN investigator, Kashoggi’s Post editors, his fiancée Hatice Cengiz, and a horrifying audio of the murder itself come together for criminal expose that, despite Fogel’s worries, should find an audience everywhere except the kingdom in which it’s needed most.
Another documentary that left Sundance audiences stunned was “On the Record,” from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (“The Invisible War”). The film gives a voice to former music executive Drew Dixon and other women as they level detailed allegations of being sexually assaulted by rap mogul Russell Simmons in the 1980s and ’90s. “On the Record” entered Park City to controversy, with executive producer Oprah Winfrey removing her name from the project and scuttling a distribution deal with Apple. The reasons for Winfrey’s about-face remain fuzzy — and went unaddressed at the packed Sundance premiere — but the movie itself is damning and convincing, and the eloquence with which the subjects process their pain and parse the ironies of the #MeToo movement as it applies to black women is striking. (Simmons has denied the accusations of all 18 of his accusers.)
As strong as “On the Record” is — and as much as it deserves to be seen (and hopefully will) — Dick and Ziering’s highly produced style of documentary filmmaking is not to every personal taste, with its soundtrack music cuing the audience’s emotions, among other tactics. There are funkier, grittier nonfiction movies at Sundance, and some that play with form in surprising ways.
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” appears to be a fly-on-the-wall look at the last day of a dive bar in Las Vegas, with the down-and-out regulars mourning the disappearance of a vanishing, non-corporatized Sin City. And while there is a Roaring 20s bar and the people we’re watching are being their (increasingly blotto) selves, the situation itself has been set up and essentially stage-managed by filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross.
Does that make “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” less “real” than comparatively smooth productions like “On the Record” and “The Dissident”? It sure doesn’t feel that way in the playing. The Rosses are pioneering a hybrid form — call it the curated nonfiction film — and making it work in fascinating and deeply human ways.
Then there’s the audacious “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” in which director Kirsten Johnson (“Cameraperson”) deals with her elderly father’s decline and impending demise by using the magic of the movies to stage fake deaths, using stuntmen, prop blood, and her own extremely game dad, retired psychiatrist Richard Johnson. The film walks a thin line between the powerfully emotive and the bad-taste bizarre; it’s comical, touching, disturbing, and provocative in equal measure. After a while, it becomes clear that “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is his daughter’s desperate, open-eyed attempt to keep her father alive, in memory, on a screen, maybe in life, and that’s something to which anyone who has dealt with an aging parent can relate. Is Dick Johnson really dead? By film’s end, the games have become so multi-layered that it’s not at all clear. I’ll just say that Kirsten Johnson is in Sundance with her movie — and she didn’t come by herself.