Each year at the Sundance Film Festival, a well-scripted gem or two emerges from the pack. Yet, more often than not, the best-received movies are the true-life documentaries.
From a dissection of Roman Polanski’s legal woes (“Wanted and Desired”) to an amazing personal odyssey in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (“Trouble the Water”), nonfiction films were non compare at this week’s indiefest, with an abundance of heavy political subjects.
Perhaps the most commercial poli-doc at Sundance is “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” a combination history lesson, travelogue and goodwill message movie by amiable auteur Morgan Spurlock.
In this film, expected in multiplexes around April, Spurlock — whose debut hit was the anti-burger screed “Super Size Me” — takes on Al Qaeda.
Spurlock travels to Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan in his search for the infamous terrorist.
Obviously, Spurlock doesn’t find him, but he speaks with soldiers, Arab students, foreign journos, friendly rug salesmen, Hasids, Bedouins, Imams and dozens of street folks to relate how Bin Laden rose to iconic status.
In an interview at Sundance, Spurlock tells Politico his main goal was to “demystify Bin Laden.” Indeed, he portrays the world’s most wanted terrorist as a cartoon, a video game avatar and, most realistically, a misanthropic Muslim.
More important than Bin Laden’s debunking, the film presents American audiences with a look at life on the other side of the world. As it turns out (hum "Kumbaya" here), most Middle Eastern citizens just want clean water, a good education for their children and freedom from tyranny.
Hokey, yes, maybe even a bit naive — but it’s also stuff that doesn’t get told often on CNN or Fox News.
Due to safety concerns, Spurlock claims he was warned by several U.S. government officials not to make his film.
Denied a visa into Pakistan, he said he was told that the Musharraf government was afraid not only of what he might find but also of what might happen to him.
“They didn’t want another Danny Pearl on their hands,” says Spurlock, who finally bribed a Pakistani official in Afghanistan with $2,000 to get the passport stamps.
Historically speaking, Spurlock takes the U.S. to task for its decades of support for Middle East dictators, abandonment of Afghanistan after the Russians were defeated (see “Charlie Wilson’s War”) and failure to help bring Israelis and Palestinians together.
“At this point, it’s easy to jump on the Bush-bashing train, but you can’t blame this administration for everything,” says Spurlock. “There were a lot of years leading up to the rise of Bin Laden.”
The director hopes his film leads to healthy debate on the campaign trail, no matter whether it “incenses or motivates” audiences. “I tried to bring up serious issues the candidates should be talking about,” he says. “We need to hear what exactly our foreign policy will be in the next administration.”
The war on terror wasn’t the only campaign issue addressed at Sundance.
A doc with the telling title “I.O.U.S.A.” received critical acclaim for its explanation of America’s current economic crisis.
Indeed, one critic told director Patrick Creadon that the film ought to air on TV this week, considering the rollercoaster Dow, the subprime mess and other financial furies.
Creadon, whose previous film was the amusing crossword doc “Wordplay,” talked to renowned investor Warren Buffett, President Clinton’s treasury secretary Robert Rubin, and George W. Bush’s first treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, as well as others to drive home his point that the U.S. has bitten off more than it can hew financially.
(Alan Greenspan refused to be interviewed, so Creadon uses a clip from his appearance on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.")
“I.O.U.S.A.” may be a tough sell, Creadon admits, since most audiences aren’t comfortable with financial terms and players.
“People seem fairly familiar with documentary topics like the environment, Iraq or even AIDS,” he says. “But when subjects like the federal budget deficit come up in conversation, most people don’t want to feel stupid, so they’ll excuse themselves and head to the bar.”
So Creadon uses humorous clips from “Saturday Night Live,” “The Colbert Report” and other shows and keeps things light for general audiences. “I didn’t make this for Wall Streeters or the inside-the-Beltway crowd,” he insists. “I made it for American taxpayers and voters.”
When he first introduces O’Neill and Rubin, for example, he displays each of their signatures on dollar bills. “These are the rock stars of the business world, and their names are literally on your money,” he says.
He also takes great pains to explain complex topics simply. “As Robert Rubin says in the film, 'It’s not that complicated: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that’s true for both individuals and the federal government,'” Creadon says.
Dozens of other documentary features and shorts played to capacity crowds at Sundance, including the surveillance overview “Secrecy,” a look at the Mumia Abu-Jamal murder case titled “In Prison My Whole Life,” the pro-biofuel picture “Fields of Fuel,” as well as a shocking doc called “FLOW: For Love of Water.”
“There’s far too little awareness of the global water crisis and local shortages,” says Steven Starr, one of the film’s producers.
“It hasn’t broken through in policy discussions on the campaign trail, but private companies such as Suez, Vivendi and Thames have taken an essential need and turned it into a commodity.”
Starr and others here strongly believe that one recent hit documentary has helped change the marketplace for all political message films. “‘An Inconvenient Truth’ opened the door to discussions of big subjects like this,” he says.