While political and eco-themed documentaries are once again prevalent at Sundance, portrait docus dominate this year’s nonfiction lineup.
Kurt Cobain, Barry Crimmins, Marlon Brando, Tig Notaro, Robert “Evel” Knievel, Warren Jeffs and Nina Simone are among the many famous and infamous figures being explored by Sundance veteran directors including Bobcat Goldthwait, Amy Berg, Liz Garbus and Brett Morgen.
Like last year’s Sundance hit “Life Itself” (one of 15 docs on the Oscar shortlist) this year’s crop of profile-driven pics veer away from the standard chronological bio
doc and delve into lives using impressionistic techniques.
In assembling HBO’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” director Morgen used new and previously unseen archival footage — including Cobain’s Super-8 movies, his spoken word poetry and autobiography, his sculptures, his photography and his sound design pieces — to reveal a more “humanistic portrait” of Cobain.
The overarching goal of the doc, Morgen told Variety in November, “is to really challenge the existing mythologies surrounding Kurt.”
In “Listen to Me Marlon,” director Stevan Riley also tackles a well-known figure by using new and previously unseen footage. Showtime is behind the doc. Riley, who talked with Marlon Brando’s friends, family and colleagues prior to production, ultimately decided to keep those voices out of the film.
“Talking heads can end up being a bit tired, and invariably introduce a degree of distance and separation between the audience and the subject as there is one more level of interpretation to contend with,” the helmer says. “Having Marlon carry the whole narrative tests the fourth wall between the audience and the subject, with the result that you feel as though you’re actually participating and sharing in his life. It’s perhaps the ultimate in subjective storytelling.”
Documentaries that let audiences discover rather than passively receive ideas about people is exactly what attracted Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco to “Montage of Heck,” “Listen to Me Marlon” and other profile-driven docs including “Being Evel,” Daniel Junge’s portrait of daredevil Evel Knievel; “City of Gold,” Laura Gabbert’s tribute to Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold; and “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” Garbus’ Netflix pic about the singer.
“(With each of these films) there is this notion of being able to enter the experience of the person we are observing from the inside,” Libresco says. “There seems to be this commitment to subjectivity by entering the inner life, the creative process and the contradictions through their own voices, so we are no longer observing them objectively from the outside. Instead we are using the medium to bring us inside that experience.”
Garbus admits that reflecting on culture through subjects like Simone was one of the main reasons she signed on to direct the Netflix doc.
“In the case of the (Simone) you have this extraordinary life of genius and creativity that is so inextricably tied with social and political moments. I think it’s is a really interesting way of showing a story of a person.”