PARK CITY, Utah — Even by the lacerating standards of recent Sundance docs Why We Fight and Iraq in Fragments, the nonfiction at this year's fest felt, well, real — alarmingly so. Indeed, after doing battle with films about U.S. policies on Iraq, Darfur, and global warming, this critic was nearly moved to rescind his American citizenship. Which is merely to say that Sundance, for all its “indie” fictions, remains a festival worth attending in good conscience, even amid a few bad movies.
Squandering its opening-night slot, Brett Morgen's Chicago 10 invited Gen Next to party like it's 1968, the film's anachronistic (and condescending) use of rotoscope animation and Rage Against the Machine tracks amounting to Yippies for Dummies. Any Sundance doc can raise its middle finger to the Man; far less familiar in PC Park City is the American movie that aesthetically torches another country. Jason Kohn's richly deserving Grand Jury Prize-winner Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) approaches the topic of rampant corruption and violence in Brazil's Sao Paulo the way an awestruck kid would fire off a gangsta rap video. Bulletproof cars! Kidnappings! Severed ears! And . . . cannibal frogs? Kohn, an Errol Morris protégé and bona fide visual genius, goes for mondo bizarro here — shooting Sao Paulo as if it were a sci-fi set, interspersing grotesque snippets of plastic surgery procedures and real torture videos used by ransom-chasing thugs, then lubricating the mix with the sexiest Brazilian pop. Like the fest's beautifully bestial horse-screws-man movie Zoo, Manda Bala is a disturbingly stunning doc whose flamboyant expressionism feels somehow truer to its subject than vérité would.
Only Enemies of Happiness — another well-deserved jury prize winner — drew greater exhilaration out of despair; its portrait of Malalai Joya, the young woman elected in 2005 to Afghanistan's parliament, carries the magic uplift of classic Hollywood and the considerable bonus of authenticity. Other war-zone docs allowed far less room for hope. The Israeli Hot House interviews imprisoned Palestinians who have inevitably become martyrs to their cause and shows how “success” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only stands to bring more failure. And Charles Ferguson's masterfully edited No End in Sight turns the well-known details of our monstrously bungled Iraq War into an enraging, apocalyptic litany of fuckups.
Whether any movie can make a difference at one of the lowest points in human history seemed a recurring question. A panel discussion called “The Times, Did They A-Change?” (couldn't they at least have changed the title?) concluded only that, in a global market, the antiquated “counterculture” might sell better as a multinational concept. The movies, to their credit, held even less faith in their own power. The young American whistleblower of the devastating Darfur doc The Devil Came on Horseback learns the hard way that practically no one is listening, even (or especially) when the message has to do with genocide, while the anti-apathy, global-warming film Everything's Cool messily wonders whether the climate can withstand activist infighting — and how to capitalize on An Inconvenient Truth.
If a single screen can't hold the world's countless horrors, documentary rabble-rouser Travis Wilkerson (An Injury to One) did well to employ five, plus a folk-rock band, for his latest work, Soapbox Agitation #1: Proving Ground, a multimedia rumination on Lenin, Brecht, imperialism, anticapitalism, and war that invigorated tiny crowds at the fest's New Frontier sidebar. Bracingly resistant to the festival's marketing/distribution model, Wilkerson (“Slave labor and theft are the foundations of American power!”) says he may never again perform the show — a sadly suitable outcome for one of the only Sundance products that wasn't for sale.