Sundance is now in its 29th year. There’s more corporate sponsorship than in the old days and tons more swag. But amidst the celebrity gifting suites, something remains the same – the commitment to independent voices, especially in the documentary programme which continues to take on critical global, ecological, and humanitarian concerns.
A cluster of documentaries this year addressed timely United States political and economic issues. I will focus on three: The World According to Dick Cheney by R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton, Inequality for All by Jacob Kornbluth, and 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, which lists nine co-directors and nearly 100 collaborators behind founders Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites.
R.J. Cutler, co-director of The World According to Dick Cheney, was last at Sundance with The September Issue, about fashion magazine Vogue. Several colleagues wondered if an overtly political filmmaker would have been given the same access Cutler had to the man who wielded unprecedented power as Vice President under George W. Bush. Cutler had four days of sit-down time with Cheney, and the doc is built around the interview.
For people who don’t know who Cheney is, or don’t know that it was Cheney (not President Bush) at the helm after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or didn’t know that a Vice President could be so set on taking the United States to war, you might learn something. For those who are exasperated this man who swore to defend the Constitution held such seeming disregard for the separation of powers, and the Justice Department, and the Geneva Conventions, you may become frustrated and even outraged.
One audience member walked out during a post-screening Q&A after challenging the filmmakers about how they let Cheney off the hook, not even pressing any follow-up questions when the former Vice President, the audience member said, ought to be standing trial for treason. At least he ought to have to answer to the financial troubles the U.S. finds itself in due to the enormous cost of wars that continue to drag us down.
But, that’s just an opinion. Cheney defends his convictions without pause, from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to waterboarding and warrantless wiretapping. Cheney’s talking head interviews are balanced by experts who offer counterpoint, but nothing terribly radical. And Cutler throws softballs to Cheney, never digging up any dirt, especially regarding Halliburton (the contractor Cheney has ties to), an omission which leaves an indelible mark on the film. After accusations in the public sphere that Cheney profits from the war, the filmmakers don’t even raise the question, if even to offer an opportunity for refutation. For this and other significant absences, I am left concerned someone might treat this film as a pedagogic document.
… a depth of heart rarely found in a film about economics
But Cutler does let Cheney speak. And perhaps this is the point, to let Cheney’s character surface. We are left with a man who, if he had the chance to do everything over, would do it all again. Cheney stands firm in his belief that he kept his country safe, and that’s all that matters.
Next in our focus is Inequality for All, directed by Jacon Kornbluth and featuring Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. This tour-de-force crash course in How the Middle Class Is Getting Screwed provides insight not only into income disparity and the struggles of everyday Americans, but also into Reich himself who, at 4’ 11’ (1.49 m), invites us into his personal world with a mix of unexpected vulnerability, humor, and passion that props Inequality up with a depth of heart rarely found in a film about economics.
But it’s not just economics, and that’s the point. You feel Reich’s concern reverberate though his standing-room-only classroom and off the screen. Reich cares deeply that people are hurting, families are hurting, good decent hard-working people are hurting. He wants you to understand why. And he wants you to feel like there’s still hope to turn it all around and go back to the America that once was.
Dubbed “An Inconvenient Truth for the economy,” the 85-minute doc is a pulpit for Reich’s long-standing income inequality narrative (most recently trumpeted in his book Aftershock) and is structured around lectures from Reich’s uber-popular Wealth and Poverty course at the University of California, Berkeley. Lecture snippets are lively and interactive and the doc clips along too. Engaging graphics offer a picture of the financial desperation playing out across the nation.
The facts are hard to run from, unless you’re of the persuasion that poor people just don’t try hard enough: Income inequality hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression, middle class wages are stagnant in the face of inflation, the likelihood of someone working their way out of poverty is stacked against them, corporate interests influence public policy and tax rates for the wealthy promote this mess.
Hope is located in Reich’s compelling plea to anyone willing to listen: from factory workers to Occupy protestors; from his students to us, the viewers (in fiery non-lecture hall close-ups that pepper the film). Can we muster the will, and the political will, to fix the system? Reich’s closing speech ends with the reminder that “Politics is not out there. Politics is in here.”
Drawing a line from The World According to Dick Cheney to Inequality for All, the last focus is 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. Wherein Dick Cheney offered up the idea of power and corrupting politics, and Inequalitylaid out the complex affair of politics, the economy, corporate power and domestic policy, 99% takes to the streets. This energizing doc tells the story of Occupy Wall Street, sometimes called Occupy or OWS, a protest against income inequality (and more) that began in New York City on September 17, 2011, and grew into a nationwide movement. 99% inspires you to get up out of your seat and take action.
My big note on this film is the way it was made. The production process mirrors the complexity, subversiveness – and challenges – of the Occupy movement. Just as the movement throws down the gauntlet to the structure of corporate and governmental hierarchy, the doc eschews traditional hierarchy, incorporating nearly 100 filmmaker collaborators from all over the U.S. under the helm of four directors and six co-directors. With energy ripping off the screen, protests from urban centers like Boston and Oakland to small towns in between unify to tell a “we’re mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore” story.
Critics might say 99% lacks a clear narrative, maybe even that the message was unfocused, but I don’t agree. In fact, wasn’t that the same criticism thrust on the movement? Diverse calls for change bellowed from the streets: holding big banks accountable, eliminating money from politics and overturning Citizens United, increasing taxes on the wealthy, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more. It was hard to encapsulate the message into a soundbite, that was part of the point. Filmmakers were wise to include thoughtful perspectives such as Naomi Wolf’s dictum that if Occupy is to have lasting impact, it needs to consider its methods and it needs a leader.
Here, the production process offers a window into successful outcomes. 99% co-founder and co-director Audry Ewell says the greatest technical challenge was simply organization, including things like setting up naming protocols, making sure they were being followed and sending drives to the right location for footage to be downloaded. But, ultimately, they had everything under control. “We honestly didn’t have a lot of tech issues because we worked with our post-production supervisor, colorist, and supervising editor in the very earliest stages to set up strict protocols that kept things organized and consistent. We basically skipped pre-production and focused on post-production at the very start.”
So maybe it’s good to focus on the end game and incorporate proven strategies to create success. There’s a lot to learn from the Occupy Movement, a work-in-progress we’ve not heard the last of. That ordinary Americans took to the streets to stand up to inequality in such a profound way is remarkable. 99% is a witness to that, and it’s a testament to the possibility of change.