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Haiti Crisis Adds Resonance To Sundance Docs


The recent tragic events in Haiti have given an unexpected resonance to a new documentary on child sponsoring that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. A SMALL ACT by Jennifer Arnold looks at the modern day phenomenon of Westerners sponsorship and adoption of third world children.


With the Haitian crisis generating hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from almost every nation of the world, often by exploiting images of suffering children, Arnold's investigation of these sponsorship programs becomes an extraordinary and not entirely sympathetic look at this corner of philanthropy. A SMALL ACT specifically looks at how an impoverished Kenyan boy’s life was drastically changed when an anonymous Swedish woman sponsored his primary and high school education for $15 a term.  The boy, Chris Mburu, grew up to attend Harvard and become a human-rights lawyer for the United Nations. One twist Ms. Arnold explores in the film involves Mr. Mburu’s discovering his sponsor’s identity: she is a Holocaust survivor named Hilde Back. The film, which is a strong conntender for an Audience Award here, does not mention Haiti specifically, but the humanitarian crisis has given it an added resonance.  

Other films given new urgency by the events in Haiti include THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, an adaptation of the controversial bestseller by political theorist Naomi Klein which looks at the exploitation of moments of crisis in vulnerable countries by governments and big business; and CLIMATE REFUGEES, an eco doc focusing on large-scale population displacement due to the effects of climate change (could Haiti's earthquake have been stimulated by global warming?).


The documentary is competing in the American Independents Documentary section, which has traditionally been one of the strongest and most reliable at Sundance. Other films exploring equally controversial subjects include THE TILLMAN STORY, an investigation into the "friendly fire" shooting in Afghanistan of former NFL star Pat Tillman and the government's attempt to cover up his death by his own troops; BHUTTO, a portrait of the Pakistani leader and a queasy look at the corruption of Pakistani politics; and 12TH AND DELAWARE, a look at the growing political power of advocates both for and against abortion.


In what is turning out to be a strong year for Sundance docs, the first deal of the Festival has been of a documentary. WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, an eye-opening critique of America's public education system, has sold to Paramount Vantage in what has been reported as a modest six figure deal. The film is the latest effort of Davis Guggenheim, who directed the Oscar winning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, the cinequanon of eco wake up calls about the threats of climate change.


Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Dailies Editor


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Ambiance from Park City Sundance film Festival January 19-29, 2012.

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