TELLURIDE, Colo. — While Sydney Pollack’s “Amazing Grace” was being muzzled by Aretha Franklin and a Denver judge in Telluride Friday, a number of other documentaries dotted the schedule. Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog,” Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and Jennifer Peedom’s “Sherpa,” among others, offered a wide range of topics for audiences to absorb, representing a certain on-going parity with the fest’s narrative selections, as longtime attendee Ken Burns put it.
I caught a pair of them: Davis Guggenheim’s “He Named Me Malala” (the annual press and patrons screening to kick off the fest) and Charles Ferguson’s “Time to Choose.” Both come from previous Oscar winners concerned with meaty zeitgeist issues, though they make for a stark contrast. Guggenheim’s portrait of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai feels unfocused, a missed opportunity to reconcile a very intimate story with its place in a broader context. Whereas Ferguson’s climate change pic offers a disciplined, structured deep dive into a global crisis.
My colleague Tim Gray has already assessed “Malala,” so I’ll focus on “Time to Choose,” which is, in a word, sobering. What’s valuable about the film is that, while it presents plenty of information that has flown around this debate for some time, it distills it with impeccable research and a straight-talk structure outlining each of the key climate change culprits: the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, mining, the livestock sector, etc. The imagery that accompanies these separate sections is the film’s biggest commodity, gasp-inducing shots of mountaintop removal in West Virginia or open coal mines in China hammering the points home.
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Moreover, Ferguson does a wonderful job of presenting this as an international concern. He spends plenty of time assessing rainforest depletion due to soy farming or gas flaring in Nigeria, among countless other alarming practices around the globe. But it’s ultimately an optimistic film, focusing plenty on alternatives that are becoming increasingly viable.
The film, which is seeking U.S. distribution, also comes just ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, set for Paris in December. It would be a smart move for a studio to scoop it up and prime it for release around that time.
Both “He Named Me Malala” and “Time to Choose” could be a part of this year’s discussion in the documentary Oscar race, but one never can tell with this branch. Once you win, it’s almost like you lose your spot going forward. Just ask Alex Gibney, who keeps crushing it but can’t seem to get arrested post-“Taxi to the Dark Side.” Guggenheim already took one on the chin when 2010’s “Waiting for ‘Superman'” missed out on a nomination, interestingly the very year Ferguson won for “Inside Job.” It’s already shaping up to be a competitive category so we’ll just have to see whether voters embrace these issues or prefer to support less-established films and filmmakers.