Every year, the Sundance Film Festival documentary lineup is full of films that explore controversial topics, almost invariably from a liberal/progressive perspective. And as a result, they generally find receptive audiences from festival crowds likely to be simpatico with the filmmakers' point of view. Yet that tendency to agree with a movie's thesis often makes it hard for viewers to separate the extent to which the film is actually successful artistically. It's as though they can't really imagine what a movie would look like that explored the exact same subject, but did it poorly.
As case in point, consider God Loves Uganda compared with After Tiller. Every once in a while, the way a documentary is attempting to stack the deck crushes my natural inclination to agree with the film's politics. That happens in God Loves Uganda Roger Ross Williams' look at how cultural conservatism in predominantly Christian Uganda—particularly recent laws targeting homosexuality—is the result of a concerted effort by fundamentalist missionary groups in the U.S. It's a reality unlikely to be familiar to most people, and there was rich potential for Williams to look at the way far-right politics are manifesting themselves in another country. But he goes over the top in his attempts to make the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer and its Ugandan disciples look ridiculous—dwelling on images of church members speaking in tongues or writhing in ecstasy during services; playing to the idea that a church leader who confesses that he once had a pornography addiction must be some kind of hypocrite; making sure we see the opulent home of a prominent Ugandan pastor—and in so doing loses track of the way anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has turned particularly deadly. Maybe try forcing these young missionaries, who sincerely believe they're saving souls, to confront the real-world consequences of the beliefs they espouse instead of pointing a camera at them and assuming that makes them villains.
You certainly don't expect a fervent pro-life advocate to change his or her mind after watching After Tiller, but Martha Shane and Lana Wilson do put a different face on the expression “late-term abortion.” They profile the only four remaining American physicians—LeRoy Carhart, Susan Robinson, Shelley Sella and Warren Hern—who still perform third-trimester abortions, in the wake of the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion activist. And it's a sobering, surprising examination of not just the doctors themselves, but the kinds of cases they face, often (but not always) involving severe fetal abnormalities. Everything about the production, including the gentle music, makes it clear that Shane and Wilson are sympathetic to the doctors who struggle with protesters, the threat of violence against themselves, the emotions of dealing with their patients and even their own occasional ambivalence about what they do. But, it's compelling watching the easy rhetoric that paints these doctors as “monsters” turned into the complicated reality of humans who feel themselves just as driven by their own sense of purpose.