Veterans of the Sundance Film Festival know it’s coming. They may not know when or where, but at some point, a Park City newbie will have an epiphany: “Man, the documentaries are so good!”
Yes, and it’s been that way for some time — which is why this year’s inaugural Premiere doc section is a logical, even overdue, step in the festival’s pursuit of parity between narrative and nonfiction, a philosophy that’s helped alter the once-upon-a-time stepchild status of American documentaries.
“They have helped to raise the profile of the documentary in a very powerful and significant way,” says director Alex Gibney, whose “Magic Trip” will be part of the Premiere doc menu in Park City. “The festival provided a forum and, during a brief moment when documentaries made money at the box office, it also was the occasion for some rather spectacular deals. But what they really did a good job of was creating an equivalent space: ‘Docs are movies just like dramas, and we’re going to treat them the same.’?”
Documaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) feels that, thanks to the influence of Sundance, other fests, too, have been featuring documentary films. “I think Michael Moore and Errol Morris and folks like that have played a huge role,” says James, whose latest, “The Interrupters,” also bows in Premieres. “But one of the things that’s happened is that documentaries have become more important at other festivals because of the profile they’ve had at Sundance. Like Toronto — for years they didn’t pay much attention to documentaries, but over the past 10 years or so, the profile there has gone up considerably. Tribeca, too. Among filmmakers, it’s become a coveted thing to get your documentary in competition in Tribeca.”
That there are enough prominent documakers to populate the new section — a fraternal twin to the long-established narrative Premieres — is remarkable enough. But so is the 180-degree turn Sundance is making from 2010’s doc competition lineup, which included three Oscar winners (Davis Guggenheim, Leon Gast and Gibney — or as programmer David Courier calls them, “the three Gs”), as well as several Oscar nominees and shortlisted filmmakers.
“We pride ourselves in being a festival of discovery,” Courier explains. “I don’t want to brag, but I think Sundance has been pretty damned instrumental in the elevation of documentaries. We’ve nurtured these filmmakers. So that was the quandary.”
The docmakers in the 2011 Premiere section — among them, Liz Garbus (“Bobby Fischer Against the World”), Eugene Jarecki (“Reagan”), Morgan Spurlock (“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”) and World of Wonder duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“Becoming Chaz”) — all have been Park City regulars. To put them in competition, after a point, would undermine the mission of the festival. At the same time, there are reasons both artistic and commercial for continuing to include them in the fest.
“It remains important that even established docmakers have the opportunity to screen at Sundance,” says Diane Weyermann, executive VP for documentaries at Participant Media and former head of docs at Sundance. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve won an Oscar. Generally speaking, you still have to secure distribution, and Sundance remains one of the key launch sites, whether you’re an established filmmaker or a newcomer.”
As Weyermann points out, the creation of a Premiere category takes the pressure off the festival — “They don’t have to choose,” she says — though others point out that the two-tiered doc structure imposes a kind of class system on the nonfiction filmmaking community.
At least one newcomer is unconcerned: Marshall Curry, whose acclaimed “Street Fight” and “Racing Dreams” were not in Park City, will screen his latest, “If a Tree Falls,” in competition this year. According to Curry, he wasn’t even aware of the different sections at first.
“But it’s not a bad thing for filmmakers,” Curry says. “If your film is in the Premiere group, you get the prestige of being included in that. And if your film is in competition, you get the attention and possibility of winning something that comes with that. Frankly, I’m just happy to be part of Sundance.”
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