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A&E Blog

Sundance 2010: We've Got Issues

by Scott Renshaw
- Posted // 2010-01-26 -

This just in: Most of the people at Sundance—and most of the people in the entertainment industry—are liberals. In other breaking news, there’s a lot of snow here.

This demographic phenomenon is what it is, but it presents a programming challenge for the festival, particularly where the documentaries are concerned. Year in and year out, they deal with issues from a largely left-of-center perspective. And the 2010 Documentary Competition slate is no different, as you glance through summaries of movies about rapacious natural gas leasing, the failing education system, political corruption, the war in Afghanistan and abortion.

But filmmakers can demonstrate widely different levels of appreciation for looking at a subject from more than one point of view. On the down side is Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money. I have little doubt that Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) could have filled four hours of screen time with all the shenanigans of Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist, wheeler-dealer and world-class jagoff whose ultimate downfall also brought down several congressmen. That doesn’t mean that a mere two hours’ worth can’t still become dizzying and overwhelming. Gibney catalogs a host of Abramoff’s most notorious capers—his double-dealing with American Indian tribes over representing their casino interests; creating shadow “non-profit” organizations as money-laundering fronts for political payoffs; figuring out ways around various laws to allow sweatshop labor in the commonweath of Saipan—with understandable outrage, ultimately making him the poster child for the overwhelming power of cash to manipulate the American political process. But Gibney doesn’t really build a narrative so much as throw out the evidence, and his heavy-elbow-nudging song cues only underline a vague sense of self-congratulation for giving these misdeeds a cinematic airing. As a populist call to arms, it starts to feel like two hours of someone blowing the bugle in your ear.

By comparison, check out 12th & Delaware. Across the street from one another at an intersection in Fort Pierce, Florida are two rival businesses of a unique nature: A Woman’s World is a clinic that performs abortions, and the competition is a Catholic Church-run Crisis Pregnancy Center. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) use this dichotomy as a distillation of the American abortion debate, but it’s more than simply a convenient gimmick. Taking advantage of access to both sides—and being remarkably even-handed in the portrayal even of the day-in/day-out protesters—the filmmakers dig deeply into the intense emotions on both sides. And even taking into account the likely sympathies of a Sundance audience, it would be amazing if audiences couldn’t connect with the passionate feelings of Anne Lotierzo, the Crisis Pregnancy Center’s director. Their “by any means necessary” tactics are bound to infuriate some, but it’s possible to wonder what else you should expect of those who feel nothing less than the soul of humanity—not just individual infant souls—is at stake. If art isn’t challenging you to explore what you think, rather than just congratulating you for what you already think, what is it good for?

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