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Focus On European Documentaries At Sundance

 DEREKDEREK

Thursday, January 24----------The explosion and recent box office clout of documentary features is very much a worldwide phenomenon. No longer tethered to television, many more non-fiction films are making a splash on the big screen. The poster boy for this movement is most probably Michael Moore, whose trifecta of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, FAHRENHEIT 911 and this year’s  nominated SICKO, were film phenomena in their own right, often outpacing Hollywood features and hyped indie dramatic gems. The documentary renaissance is changing the rules for the form in Europe. While many European docs have their major funding coming from various broadcast and cable networks, a track record is now emerging for the viability of such films at the local multiplex. The old rules that European audiences were somehow resistant to seeing non-fiction films at the cinema, since there was such a profusion of them available on the small screen, are definitely changing.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a group of European documentary features are making a strong impression on critics and film professionals that will continue to ripple on the international film festival circuit and eventually at the local movie house. The films are being presented in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, which will announce its winner on Saturday evening. In all, the section will have presented sixteen films, drawn from over 600 submissions. Eight countries are represented, including Pakistan, Jordan, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and Canada. Themes range from stories about the artistic process, the cost of conflict, faith and nationalism, and the triumph of the human spirit.

ALONE IN FOUR WALLS (ALLEIN IN VIER WÄNDEN) by German director and screenwriter Alexandra Westmeier, tells the tale of adolescent boys who are struggling to grow up in a home for delinquents in rural Russia. The film poses the question about whether a structured life behind bars may be better than life on the streets. The film, which is produced by Linger On Filmproduktion is making its North America Premiere at the Festival.  

BE LIKE OTHERSBE LIKE OTHERSThe role of gender and sexual identity is explored in two intriguing films making their world premieres here. BE LIKE OTHERS  is a co-production between the United Kingdom, Canada and Iran by director Tanaz Eshaghian. The film offers an intimate and unflinching look at life in Iran, seen through the lens of those living at its fringes…..young Iranian men choosing to undergo sex change surgery. The film is bound to generate controversy and offers a rarely seen look at the underground gay and transgender sub-culture in Iran. The film is scheduled to screen at next month’s Berlin Film Festival. Taking a somewhat lighter tone, A COMPLETE HISTORY OF MY SEXUAL FAILURES by UK director Chris Waitt, focuses on himself, a young man who has been called a useless boyfriend. Determined to find out why, he consults his ex-girlfriends, medical practitioners, and even his mother to find out how women really see him. Has this journey made him potential boyfriend material or will the truths he has unearthed condemn him to a life of loneliness?

MAN ON WIREMAN ON WIREThe UK is represented by two other films that are already generating considerable attention. DEREK by famed directed Isaac Julien is a valentine and exploratory treatise on the work and enduring importance of the late director Derek Jarman. This artist’s innovative vision and exemplary film technique have influenced a generation of British and European storytellers. In many ways, Jarman is more celebrated today than he was in his heyday….an irony for this iconoclastic and singular artist.Another artist portrait, of a very different sort, is presented in UK director James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE, a retelling of the fleeting fame of French daredevil aerialist Philippe Petit. In 1974, the young Frenchman danced on a wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. His subsequent arrest and trial (what became known as the “artistic crime of the century”) serves as an indictment of the American legal system, with the shadows of the future 9/11 attacks serving as prophetic counterpoint to the proceedings.

The flawed American justice system is also the subject oF another UK film, Marc Evans’  IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE. The film is an affecting and controversial look at the true story of award-winning American journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been sitting in prison facing a death sentence for the past decade for killing a Philadelphia policeman. The director uses dramatic technique and interviews with a group of cultural icons and activists to question the facts of the case and shine a spotlight on the inequality and latent racism that continues to make headlines in the United States.

STRANDEDSTRANDEDFrance is represented by two arresting documentary entries. DURAKOVO: THE VILLAGE OF FOOLS (DURAKOVO: LE VILLAGE DES FOUS) by director Nino Kirtadze  tells the chilling story of the rapidly growing right-wing movement in Russia, which is centered in a small town outside of Moscow where charismatic leader Mikhail Morozov influences a young generation of initiates in anti-immigrant, anti-semitic fanaticism. In STRANDED: I’VE COME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED ON THE MOUNTAINS, director Gonzalo Arijon offers a harrowing perspective on the true story of the famous 1974 Andes plane crash that led survivors to cannibalism and murder. The survivors of the fateful incident tell their stories of adversity and hard moral choices in their own words, making the film an object lesson of courage and survival under unspeakably harsh and morally troubling conditions. Look for these films at your local movie house (or at least at your local film festival) in the coming months.

Sandy Mandelberger, Sundance FF Editor 

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