Pat Aufderheide

Sundance Docs Showcase Activist Agendas

The Sundance Film Festival is now the most important U.S. market for independent film. Because of the writers' strike, perhaps 15,000 additional folks from television and film programming and distribution showed up this year for the annual January festival, shopping for potential content. Because of that, Sundance can determine if the rest of us will see important new films on our television sets and in theaters. It's both an arbiter and an indicator of media for public knowledge and action.

This year, documentaries were must-see films -- as well as hot sellers. Some of the films worked hard to fill gaping information holes in our mass media. A good example was the Grand Jury Award-winner, Trouble the Water, a moving film about Hurricane Katrina as a social catastrophe, told by longtime Michael Moore crew members Tia Lessen and Carl Deal, using home-movie footage of a Ninth Ward resident.

Perhaps the most distinctive theme was what you might call "apocalyptic activism," in which filmmakers appeal to viewers to mobilize political will for democratic change in the spirit of An Inconvenient Truth. These films showcased the passion of individual filmmakers, the lack of mainstream media coverage of systemic problems, and the hazards of trusting to individuals -- however well-motivated -- for critically important information. They're also examples of what dot-com magnate and sports entrepreneur Ted Leonsis calls "filmanthropy," an entrepreneurial approach to getting good word out through documentaries by involving potential partners and viewers in using, promoting and paying for them.

Leonsis' own Sundance entry, Kicking It (directed by Susan Koch), was one of the most instantly successful "filmanthropy" films, a wild success with audiences and quickly sold to ESPN for worldwide release. It, too, raises questions even as it tugs effectively on heartstrings. The film chronicles the Homeless World Cup, a gimmicky festival in which homeless men from around the world play soccer, improving their self-esteem and team-building skills. This therapeutic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit approach, always a sentimental favorite, is hard to swallow as a global social program. But at the premiere, Leonsis proudly told the audience that they could help end homelessness by going to the website to support a team.

In Fields of Fuel, winner of the Audience Award, director Josh Tickell thumps appealingly for biodiesel as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and increase air, land and water purity, as well as national security. Tickell showcases an engaging persona as a confident, youthful activist, who evolves from a brash biodiesel nut to someone who understands organizing, partnership and the challenge of bucking corporate power. But he's also pitching to people who aren't moved by conservation, and he has a far more optimistic view of biofuels than do many environmental organizations, which note that corn production takes almost as many inputs as ethanol provides outputs. What's more, high soy production could ravage rainforests. (Tickell does note that corn production for ethanol is far inferior to soy for biodiesel, but he doesn't do a global calculation.) He also chronicles the long history of pro-oil policies that have deferred to Detroit, and he pushes viewers to support clean-fuel policies and to make clean-fuel choices.

The workmanlike and sometimes lovely Flow: For Love of Water, by Irena Salina, persuasively argues that chronic poor management imperils the planet's water supply. It also shows how big business interests in privatized water, with the help of the politicians they buy off, are making problems worse. Species survival will depend on our ability to make politicians listen to us, the film argues, and offers some ideas. After this film, you'll never buy bottled water again. But the makers hope that's just the first step. Tearing down dams will be necessary, and that will take a powerful amount of political will, combined with big change in consumption habits for the electricity those dams provide.

IOUSA, by Patrick Creadon (beloved for the 2006 documentary Wordplay), makes a familiar argument -- balancing the budget is a question of national, social and economic health -- as it tracks members of a fiscal-responsibility coalition on a national tour. The chipper little group, leaning toward the conservative end of the spectrum, valiantly travels from hotel ballroom to hotel ballroom, carrying its message that politicians are punished for balancing budgets and so encourage spendthrift policies that guarantee our national indebtedness to other nations, especially China. The way out, the team argues, is to elect fiscally responsible politicians. Sadly, the film suffers from the crippling lack of charisma of its leading characters, including the U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, and often you feel bad for these earnest speakers facing a sprinkling of AARP types at their "town halls." Furthermore, the film focuses narrowly on the little group, leaving no space for a counterargument.

Other, more traditional approaches to documentary films displayed seasoned craft, research and storytelling. They also revealed some of the strengths of traditional independent documentary -- using stories to reveal social complexity and the human experience of a social reality.

Up the Yangtze, for instance, directed by Canadian Yung Chang and produced through the National Film Board of Canada, is aesthetically elegant, emotionally rich and politically provocative. A voyage of international tourists going up the Yangtze in a luxury liner is tracked through the experience of a young girl who joins the staff. Despite her dreams of high school, her family has sent her there from their soon-to-be-flooded farm by the Three Gorges Dam. Besides being an astonishingly multifaceted film that puts a human face -- or, rather, faces -- on globalization, Up the Yangtze is also a beautifully shot and paced film, which is best seen in a theater. You'll be able to do that before it shows up on the public broadcasting series P.O.V. this year.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss' Secrecy argues with gravity and grace that our national spy agencies are hobbled by secrecy policies inherited from the Cold War, and which can't keep us safe in an open-information environment. This film reaches across partisan lines, appealing to those who see a need for national intelligence but fear its usefulness may be compromised. It's a thoughtful and dense film, which trusts viewers to judge the argument for themselves. (It contrasted well with Morgan Spurlock's Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, which was even more superficial than his Super Size Me; animation, video-game references and ADHD editing carry the shallow point that most Muslims worldwide are not terrorists and that they are scared of U.S. geopolitics.)

Sundance docs this year not only showcased excellent craft but also a passionate urgency to engage viewers as citizens. But apocalyptic activism is also an informational Wild West, where anyone can passionately promote anything.

Documentaries lack the traditional editorial approval process of mainstream media, a fact that has liberated some makers to take a fresh look at issues. Without context and discussion, however, such documentaries run the risk of merely becoming tools of new special interests.

Public media need vigorous public debate to go with them. Social networking tools combined with social movements that use them and a maturing field of citizen journalism that mixes up the professionals and amateurs could provide that debate.

Sundance Verite

The Sundance Film Festival is part high school (did you get invited to the party?), part bazaar (check out high-fashion underwear, and drive the Tuareg!), and part dark-night-of-the-soul (freezing ankles while waiting for the bus).

Oh yeah, and then there's the movies.

The festival that started out to celebrate the creativity of independent film artists has become a never-failing source of irony -- one of the world's most important film markets and, willy-nilly, the midwife of new Hollywood trends. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Documentaries -- less glamorous, more socially relevant, sometimes overtly political -- were always the quieter side of Sundance. Not anymore. This year, Sundance opened with a splashy and historically insightful surfing doc, Riding Giants by Stacy Peralta, whose last hit was Dogtown and Z-Boys. Other documentarians with far less flashy fare captured the interest of the cell-phone brigades sent out by distributors.

Among the dozens of documentaries shown at Sundance, here are my faves. Most will end up on television and some will show up before that at a theater near you.

Control Room

A great entry into the What They Really Think of Us genre for the High Imperial Era. Jehane Noujaim, a Lebanese-Syrian-American who earlier directed the critically acclaimed, spent the three months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq at the headquarters of Al-Jazeera, the independent Arab TV news channel in Qatar. Watch Al-Jazeera's resident intellectual, Hassan Ibrahim, face down U.S. Marine journalist-wrangler Josh Rushing. Catch the translator calmly interpret President Bush's pronouncement and then wrinkle his nose with distaste. And listen to senior producer Sameer Khader explain why showing civilian casualties sounds like journalism to him. This is great cinema verité, and it's a must-see for journalists. What was the hard part? "It was hard to see people who went to Al-Jazeera for freedom of speech and who expected U.S. support to be so disappointed," said Noujaim. "And U.S. bombing of their offices was a terrible moment."

Let the Church Say Amen

Here's one to make you revisit your prefab opinions of evangelical Christians. David Peterson spent a year with the members of a tiny storefront church in one of the most blasted-out corners of downtown Washington, D.C. For these African-Americans, the church provides the only social life, counseling and economic safety net they have. It's not only a poignant tale of mutual support, it's a damning condemnation of a government and society (there's a pointed clip of Bush near the end) that leaves it to a storefront ministry to meet a life's worth of needs. Peterson brought several members of the church to Sundance. "Several have never been on an airplane," he said. "It's such a joy that their story is told here."

Super Size Me

Ever wonder what happens to people who eat at McDonald's all the time? Morgan Spurlock, a New Yorker in film production whose girlfriend is a vegan chef, decided to find out when he read about a lawsuit against McDonald's. The film goes with him across the country as he eats breakfast, lunch and dinner under the Golden Arches, and takes on the pounds and liver damage to prove it. Along the way he also takes on the entire fast-food industry, especially for its Pied Pipering of children. It's Michael Moore-ish without the diffuse hostility. This was one of the hotter tickets at Sundance; Spurlock won best doc director, and cable channel A&E laid claim to it after a theatrical run. It should be shown in schools everywhere.


A great film for anyone working against the death penalty. Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson follow the path toward the decision of plain-speaking former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of 167 death-row inmates. Along the way, we meet some wrongfully convicted men, freed not because of the legal system but because of journalism students' research at Northwestern University. Ryan showed up at the Sundance premiere, as did some of the wrongfully convicted. They reminded partygoers that they can support anti-death penalty work by going to and clicking "take action," and so can you.

Heir to an Execution

A far more personal take on the death penalty, and possibly the last word on the Rosenberg executions. Granddaughter Ivy Meeropol, with investment from HBO (where the film will end up), explores her grandparents' story. The issue is no longer guilt or innocence. Her family accepts that Julius conducted industrial espionage but did not commit the crime for which he was executed, and Ethel was innocent. She instead sets out to understand why Julius and Ethel accepted execution and the context of the terrible event. The star of the film is her father, the charismatic and loving Michael Meeropol, who can still recall the horrifying events of his early youth moment-by-moment.


Another cinema verité triumph, taking us inside an America all around us that we don't usually look at. Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini spent three years in a small working-class town in Long Island, where mostly illegal Mexicans have been congregating to take the jobs Americans won't do in Long Island's wealthier towns. They chronicle the rise of a mostly white, anti-immigrant movement that erupts into hate crimes and chart how local governments and organizations struggle to resolve the conflict. The film, funded by a special public TV fund to foster diversity, won a special jury prize, and will air on public TV's leading series for independent work, P.O.V. later this year. (So will another Sundance film funded by public TV's Independent Television Service, Chisholm '72 Unbought and Unbossed, an important slice of election history.)

International documentaries have usually taken a back seat at Sundance, but coprogrammer Diane Weyermann, a lawyer who used to head the human rights-oriented Soros Documentary Fund, is changing that. This year a clutch of remarkable films provided small but important windows into vast realities beyond our borders. My favorites included:


Who really set the bombs that blew up an entire Moscow apartment complex, and with it a young woman's mother and boyfriend? St.Petersburg-based filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov is pretty sure he's found the people who know the answer. They charge that President Putin's government has created horrific terrorist incidents and blamed them on Chechen nationalists, in order to create support for its unpopular leadership. The gripping film features the young woman and her sister, married to a Wisconsin man.

"We searched for a U.S. character because we wanted to win international attention for this issue," Nekrasov said. "Governments can too easily use terrorism as a weapon to intimidate their own publics. An undemocratic country is now a threat to the entire world."

Screaming Men

In a rare upbeat offering, Mika Ronkainen gives us an insider's look at an astonishing Finnish Screaming Men's Choir. Led by the fanatical Petri Serviö, who invented it, choir members dress like Agent Smith (of the Matrix) and strut to their places robotically, at which time they holler, chant and scream national anthems and folk songs in unison. They say it's very cathartic. It's also popular worldwide. It's true: Life is strange. Ronkainen told me he thinks it gets even stranger north of Helsinki.

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1982. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat.

Uncovering the Weather Underground

It’s hard for many veteran leftists to uncurl their lips on hearing the phrase “Weather Underground.” A home-grown terrorist movement with pretensions to Third World revolution, it grabbed the headlines with bombings punctuating ’70s history and stigmatized the entire range of left activism until its leaders surrendered in disarray.

Even for the Weather-weary, though, the new film "The Weather Underground" by Sam Green and Bill Siegel can’t help but hold fascination. Green and Siegel, who were both children in the ’70s, have made a feature documentary that goes behind the mask of terror. The result is an illuminating footnote on history, and also a thought-provoking insight into extremist belief communities.

The Weather Underground is not a wide-angle history film; it doesn’t even claim to give you movement history. Instead, it provides a platform for its central characters -- members of the underground -- to recall and reflect on their own lives. The result is character studies that are both uncommented and unvarnished, and an insider’s tale of group madness. “When you feel you have right on your side,” says one-time Weatherman Brian Flanagan, standing in the bar he now owns, “you can do some horrific things.” And some ludicrous ones.

The film is organized chronologically, with flash-forwards to today as middle-aged Weatherfolk -- many of them still social activists -- retell their memories. The story begins in 1968, with the disillusionment prompted by escalation of the war in Vietnam, assassinations, and splintering of left groups. The impossibly young activists, still vibrant in the Ektachrome tints of that era’s film, glitter with the charisma that Todd Gitlin recalls. He likens them to Bonnie and Clyde, and says, with a shrug: “They were into youth, exuberance, sex, drugs. They wanted action.”

It continues with a failed search for the working class; for an end to monogamy through group sex; and an end to the state through bombings. The New York townhouse explosion that killed three Weathermen as they were preparing bombs sends the rest underground and puts a damper on grand terrorist schemes. Until they surrender -- lost in America but still outwitting the hapless FBI -- they execute publicity-seeking attacks on symbolically rich sites like the Pentagon, State Department, police and state government offices, and ITT and Gulf Oil headquarters.

What propelled them, other than the thrill of attention? They each refer to the revolutionary tenor of the time, and to their revulsion at American empire. “Doing nothing in a period of violence is a form of violence,” Naomi Jaffe explains quietly. “The Vietnam War made us all a little crazy,” one says, and another seconds it. “None of us thought we were gonna live through it,” says Bill Ayers.

No matter what, the filmmakers resolutely avoid commenting on their central characters; they don’t contradict, contextualize, celebrate or snicker. And so they build, through the characters revealed in these interviews, a picture of a group whose self-delusion deepened until underground life sealed their isolation. The occasional glimpses of the tumultuous moment -- shooting of a Vietnamese in the street, dying U.S. soldiers, presidents pontificating -- are gestures to headlines of the times. More importantly, as they exploit the privilege they are so embarrassed by with every media appearance and symbolic act, they testify to the frenetically mediacentric society in which the Weatherfolk were media stars.

Bernardine Dohrn was the star of the Weathermen then, and she’s the star of this movie. Unrepentant and self-assured, she provides guided tours of once-hot spots, including her first hideout (but doesn’t share how she managed to stay underground for a decade). Her husband, Bill Ayers, walks over the ground he once rioted over in Chicago. Like Naomi Jaffe, they are proud of having been part of a worldwide revolutionary movement. But they never explain exactly how they were part of such a movement, other than in their minds. (They do claim more of an alliance with the Black Panthers, but it’s more than others would acknowledge.) In this film, as in life, the Weatherfolk speak mostly to each other.

Others live with regret and self-doubt, but in no less of a feedback loop. Mark Rudd, a firebrand student organizer at Columbia University, is now a community college math teacher with a bad conscience. David Gilbert takes solace in not having killed anyone else with their bombs (even though he was part of a holdup in which others died later -- an incident the film ignores). The film closes with Brian Flanagan at the site of the New York townhouse (“it never gets any easier”) and Rudd saying, “In a way, I still don’t know what to do with this knowledge.” They may not be much as political analysts, but they are fascinating as survivors of a political cult.

Filmmakers Green and Siegel were both raised in families where politics was dinner-table conversation. Green was attracted as a child to the Weather Underground as part of what he now calls his “false nostalgia” for the ’60s. An award-winning filmmaker, Green has focused on dissident, offbeat and criminal characters in other films, such as The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 and Pie Fight ’69. Siegel (who once interned at In These Times) found himself captivated by the puzzle of the “generational cliff” of memory that the Weathermen had tumbled over. “No one younger than me knows who they were,” he said at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film was shown before winning the top documentary award at the San Francisco Film Festival. They decided the Weather Underground would make a great subject, and also could provoke some good conversations about politics, violence and responsibility. The two spent two years meeting with principals, winning their trust, before commencing filming. They also spoke to harsh critics, and read histories of the period.

They were finishing the film (which has major funding from the Independent Television Service, the part of public TV that funds work “for underserved audiences”) when 9/11 hit. “That changed the editorial focus,” said Green. “It made the whole issue more serious. There was a lot less room for humor.”

Bernardine Dohrn, who also attended Sundance, misses the humor. “We blew up a statue of a policeman -- a statue! It was a joke!” she says. Bill Ayers, at her side but plugged into a cell phone to receive word from his son of an antiwar rally in Washington, nods. “It was poke-you-in-the-eye stuff,” he acknowledges. “It was theater,” Dohrn says emphatically.

Both praise the film for its “no nostalgia, no axe to grind” approach, but they hate the ending. “It ends with sadness for the loss of three people. But tragedy pulled us back from a very dangerous strategy,” says Dohrn. “I look back and say, this was a very restrained movement. We weren’t wrong about the U.S. power internationally, about the jailing of black people. We were doing our work in a way where we didn’t kill people.”

Still, Ayers likes how they were portrayed. “This is a film about people who were in earnest, maybe too earnest, about being engaged. It is a cautionary tale about only listening to yourselves.” That’s not a mistake Green and Siegel intend to make.

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1982. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat.


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