Documentaries at Sundance are often equated with opinionated explorations of controversial topics. But sometimes they work best when they’re just telling stories that happen to be from real life.
When it comes to Indie Game: The Movie, there’s the part of Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s documentary that’s fascinating to a resolute non-gamer simply for the things one can learn about the industry; then there’s the part that’s engrossing just because it finds a completely new way to tell a very familiar story about people trying to make art their life’s work when the odds are always against them. Over the course of a year, the filmmakers primarily follow two work-in-progress games and the people behind them, while also providing context for the independent game-designer culture that has evolved in much the same way indie counterpoints to corporate mainstream have evolved in music, film, etc. Great human drama emerges in both of the primary storylines, capturing the wonderfully indiosyncratic programmers in all their geeky glory. But it’s also simply a celebration of spiky, unusual approaches to creative work, one that finds true art in making a little meat-boy jump over buzzsaws.
As much a mournful tone poem as a conventional "issue" documentary, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropi captures Detroit as a once-proud metropolis reeling into Third World status. The primary interview subjects — including a UAW local president and a savvy tavern owner — give voice to the 1-percenter frustrations at corporations that have allowed America’s middle-class-creating manufacturing base to vanish, and as honest as those feelings may be, they’re all-too-familiar by now. The film is much more successful as a collage of images — not just of conventional urban decay, but of a city that’s almost literally consuming itself to survive, even as both leaders and residents fight to stave off what seems inevitable. The unconventional editing rhythms that bounce quickly from one subject to another might make it hard to get a grasp on some of the individual characters, but it also becomes a genuinely effective non-fiction representation of a fundamental storytelling axiom: Show, don’t tell.