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13 Great New Political Movies You Should Watch For

As the major festival circuit begins, the big political doc titles emerge. Here are some of our favorites.

Gay pride 1987, still from David France's "How to Survive a Plague"
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While the Oscars are often praised for bringing greater attention to political documentaries like Inside Job and Gasland, the Sundance Film Festival is where it begins. Something of a feeder fest, it plucks smaller features (and shorts!) and sets them on the path to more mainstream, commercial audiences, which benefits both filmmakers and the causes they seek to illuminate. In the mid-2000s, it was certainly lambasted for leaning too Hollywood — and fostering a Cannes-like celebrity atmosphere that distracted from its initial goal of helping independent films — but in recent years, festival directors have tried to rectify that, adding different programs, such as “Focus on Film,” that mean to bring it back to earth. Last year, Gasland, Restrepo, and Waiting for Superman all hit Sundance before they were nominated for Oscars ( Restrepo won).

The entries for next year’s Sundance were just announced, and typically there are a lot of great-sounding films on the roster. But more than in recent memory, the documentary selections are incredibly politically relevant — particularly in the economic area — with several focusing on topics that came to light this year, including the Fukushima nuclear plant and Occupy Wall Street. (Many of them, it should be noted, are directed by women.) This year’s roster got Indie Wire thinking ahead, wondering, “Will Sundance 2012 Docs Influence the Debate on Poverty, Hunger, Economic Equality?” It’s not a lofty projection — we saw how last year’s big docs brought important topics like short-shrifted education and oil greed to the forefront. Here’s a list of those documentaries, both American and international, that could shift this year’s thinking, and the ones we most want to see get awesome distribution deals.

1. We’re Not Broke (dir. Karin Hayes, Victoria Bruce)
And, we have our first Occupy Wall Street–related film. The directors have collaborated together before on a few award-winning pieces, including The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, which detailed the harrowing experience of the title subject, a Colombian presidential candidate who was held hostage by FARC for over six years. This one brings it closer to home, looking at the effects of corporations’ immoral overseas tax havens as average Americans struggle for their homes and lives. It’s not out officially until 2012, so there aren’t too many details beyond that bit of information and a few stills featuring OWS protesters, though it will allegedly feature US Uncut and focus on corporate tax evasion.

2. Detropia (dir. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady)
Calling Detroit “the canary in the coal mine,” the filmmakers focus on the city’s loss of both manufacturing jobs (50 percent) and population (25 percent), and how its denizens are struggling to stay in a city on the verge of bankruptcy. Through it, they posit that Detroit is only the beginning, and that other major cities will follow as the “American dream” becomes a nightmare. Ewing and Grady, who were nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for Jesus Camp, follow the fates of several Detroiters who are holding on for dear life while trying to imagine some future of urban renewal. This film will debut at Sundance, but with Detroit’s mayor currently struggling to keep the city from the clutches of the state's nefarious emergency takeover laws, expect this topic and the city to stay in the news for 2012.

3. Finding North (dir. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush)
This piece about who goes hungry in America and why looks like it might be a game changer in the style of Waiting for Superman: having gotten a hearty cosign by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Finding North seems to posit a “return to policies of the 1970s” in order to remove the burden, and it also focuses on those hit hardest by the lack of access to affordable, healthy food: one in four children. Following three individuals affected, including a second-grader in Colorado and a third-grader in Mississippi, the film tries to shed light both on the impact of hunger for America’s future and why it’s even happening at all. Music fan bonus: The original soundtrack is performed by T-Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars.

4. The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)
Alluding to the obscenely opulent French monarch whose head was eventually lopped, Greenfield’s doc focuses on a very real, almost too perfect story of excess and economy. A billionaire family of real-estate magnates aspires to build the biggest house in America — a 90,000-square-foot abode modeled after Versailles — when the very boom and bubble that funded their project pops and stymies their dreams. Foreclosure is the guillotine in this tragedy. Filmed by an award-winning documentary photographer, the stills are compelling and the tale more so.

5. Payback (dir. Jennifer Baichwal)
Margaret Atwood’s best-selling book of the same name was the inspiration for this Canadian documentary, which focuses on the historical, cultural, and social impact of debt through the ages, and how it is, in her words, an “innate part of the human experience.” Of course, global economic meltdown is the locus of the film, which means expect plenty of Atwood’s “shadow side of wealth,” emphasis on the shadow. The film will premiere at Sundance, but to get a jump-start, listen to Atwood’s Massey lectures here, which provided the foundation for the book and, in turn, the doc.

6. Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (dir. Matthew Heineman, Susan Froemke)
Most of the films on this list are so new they don’t even have trailers, but the one with the most self-explanatory title does. The film features the dramatic exchange between President Obama and a hostile Republican Congress in the administration’s efforts to get Americans health care, of course, but goes deeper into the lobbyists and corporate powers whose pockets thrive on keeping people sick. Big pharma’s a target — and the burdened American is the victim. Escape Fire’s not finished yet and needs a big boost of funds to have it ready for Sundance. To help, donate on their Kickstarter account.