Sundance documentaries are often savvy about catching of-the-moment topics. In 2012, the ubiquity and power of social media continue to be a subject of fascination.
The story of Chris Crocker—of YouTube “Leave Britney Spears alone!” infamy—could serve as a microcosm for any number of ideas about the age of instant celebrity and perpetual self-exposure. And in Me @ the Zoo, directors Valerie Veatch and Chris Moukarbel don’t seem able to latch on to any one of them. Initially, it seems like it’s going to be a sort of tragic character study, as the transgender kid from small-town Tennessee becomes an early adapter of social-media video uploads, and finds his only honest outlet for his identity online before letting fame turn him into a self-parody. But the story never develops an emotional or philosophical punch, despite—or perhaps because of—a significant amount of time spent on the relationship between Chris and his mother, an often-homeless Iraq War veteran dealing with drug issues. The footage of Crocker’s videos is itself interesting as a portrait of digital-age exhibitionism as personal therapy, but there’s some connective tissue missing here, something that does more than point and go, “Check out this oddball.” If Chris Crocker has anything to teach us about the historical moment where 15 minutes of fame turned into 15 seconds, it will need to come from another movie.
There’s something to be said for a documentary that simply finds a fascinating subject and documents the crap out of him. That’s what Alison Klayman does in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, her profile of the titular Chinese artist—he designed the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ iconic “Bird Nest” stadium—who perpetually courts trouble at the hands of the totalitarian government he refuses to stop criticizing when he feels it’s warranted. The film tracks Ai over the course of a few eventful years, in which he butts heads (literally) with thuggish police, challenges the secrecy surrounding death tolls after the Sichuan earthquake and turns his ubiquitous social-media presence into a rallying point for others critical of the Chinese government. Klayman is careful not to try to turn Ai into a saintly Gandhi figure—he’s crude, at times self-righteous and the married father of a son conceived with a mistress—yet somehow that makes his story all the more compelling. Using the tools he has at his disposal—his gifts as an artist, and his knowledge of the power of Twitter—Ai simply opts to make his life mean something by fighting against the abuses he knows are wrong. When a subject is this legitimately inspiring, sometimes all a smart filmmaker needs to do is not get in the way.