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Documentaries the Hot Ticket at Sundance This Year

Sundance Documentaries 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Documentaries may be the hottest ticket at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Last year, Ruth Bader Ginsburg got rock-star treatment at a standing-room-only premiere of “RBG.” This go-round that distinction may go to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will be on hand at the first showing of “Knock Down the House,” a vérité look at her upset congressional win.

That’s not the only nonfiction film that seems guaranteed to heat up the mountainside gathering. This year’s crop of documentary standouts examines fraud in Silicon Valley; The Satanic Temple’s efforts to gain some respect; and one very famous sexologist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Many of the films observe the lives and legacies of formative cultural figures, such as fashion designer Halston, or great villains like Roy Cohn.

“We gravitate toward people who have outsize achievements and what we can take from the lessons of their life,” says Amy Entelis, executive vice president for talent and content development for CNN Worldwide and head of CNN Films, which produced “Halston” and is a major player in the documentary space. “That’s the connective tissue to us the viewer.”

These movies aren’t just on people’s radars because they tell compelling stories. Some of the most successful recent Sundance discoveries have hailed from the documentary space. They include Oscar winners such as “O.J.: Made in America” and “Icarus,” as well as box office sensations like “Three Identical Strangers,” “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Here’s a look at the nonfiction films that are poised to breakout in a big way.

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Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The Inventor

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, a medical device company that claimed it had found a better way to test blood, was seen as the next Steve Jobs. It was an image burnished in laudatory media profiles in Fortune and The New Yorker, gushy appearances on “Charlie Rose” and softball interviews at glossy conferences. But the illusion was shattered after The Wall Street Journal dug more deeply into the devices Holmes was peddling. It emerged that she had misrepresented what the technology she had developed could do. Alex Gibney’s “The Inventor” uses her story to examine the danger of overhyping the genius of Silicon Valley disruptors.

“As journalists, we are always looking for good stories, and we’re hardwired to create narratives,” says Gibney. “We root for them to be true. And Elizabeth — this woman succeeding in male-dominated Silicon Valley — was a good story.”

It’s a tale of lies and hype that Gibney is uniquely positioned to tell, having examined the collapse of another business tyro in 2005’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” In Holmes, who is on trial for financial fraud, Gibney was reminded of something he was once told by Jim Chanos, the legendary investor whose bearish position on Enron helped raise doubts about the company: “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

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Where’s My Roy Cohn?

No lawyer was as feared as Roy Cohn. In the 1970s and ’80s, Cohn helped Mafiosi duck jail time, counted Barbara Walters and Cardinal Francis Spellman as personal friends and counseled future president Donald Trump on the art of the counterpunch. His reputation for ruthlessness was established during a stint as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s top lieutenant, and it pushed him into the upper echelons of power.

Director Matt Tyrnauer felt that with Trump in control of the government, the time was ripe to reexamine Cohn’s formative influences on the president. “Donald Trump learned literally everything he knows from Roy Cohn,” says Tyrnauer. “And with Trump’s election, Cohn went from being a dark footnote in history to an important part of a critical chapter.”

Cohn, a closeted homosexual, died of complications from AIDS in 1986. Tyrnauer’s film makes it clear that the amorality, mendacity and relentless pursuit of wealth and influence lives on with his most famous disciple. It’s a penetrating look at Cohn, one that doesn’t try to redeem him in any way.

“I take people for who they are,” says Tyrnauer. “We all have our talents. It’s just that his were almost uniformly on the dark side of the ledger.”

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Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Halston

Frédéric Tcheng’s “Halston” looks at the minimalist American icon whose legacy was dismantled by malignant ego and corporate greed.

In a break with documentary tradition, the film is scripted in places. Tcheng uses actors to fill in the blanks surrounding the designer’s personal life and ill-fated business. The film doesn’t flinch from dramatizing the cult of personality around Halston — who put Jackie Kennedy in a pillbox hat for her husband’s inauguration and introduced the world to hot pants. Even as his flowing gowns and dramatic caftans made him a favorite with the Upper East Side set, the designer had to endure a casual kind of bigotry in the days before the gay rights movement was in full effect.

Several decades removed from Halston’s heyday, his disastrous decision to sell his label to Norton Simon resulted in his removal from the brand he created.
It’s a story of art versus commerce that continues to resonate.

“The fundamental thing I wanted to talk about with this film was ruthless corporate logic and how it can affect someone who is creative,” says Tcheng, who was a co-editor on “Valentino” and has made films about Christian Dior and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.

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Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Ask Dr. Ruth

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the gleeful sex therapist who dominated pop culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s, might see a late-career resurgence thanks to Ryan White’s warm, witty and moving look at her trailblazing life.

With her thick German accent, Westheimer took a clinical and sympathetic approach to human sexuality, at first on the radio and later on television. Her straightforwardness panicked censors, but she refused to hold back, engaging in blunt talk with callers on everything from abortion to clitoral orgasms.

“She became famous so late in her life,” White said of the 90-year-old star. Despite Westheimer’s assurance that it’s OK to talk about sex, White believes the puritanical values she battled are still in force.

While Westheimer has always identified as an immigrant, she seldom talks about surviving Hitler’s Germany, where she was separated from her family as a girl and raised in an orphanage in Switzerland. White’s film argues that early trauma may have motivated the future Dr. Ruth to share her insights on sex and love.

“She doesn’t like to delve deep into her past because it’s so painful,” says White. “She always says, ‘German Jews don’t cry.’ But she remains incredibly
interested in people.”

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Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Knock Down the House

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York over Joe Crowley in the 2018 Democratic congressional primary stunned the political world, and director Rachel Lears and her camera were along for the ride. But “Knock Down the House” is about more than Ocasio-Cortez’s improbable rise. Lears’ film also chronicles the races of three other progressive challengers — Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin — who are members of an insurgency aimed at ridding politics of corporate influence and pushing working-class concerns to the fore.

“A big part of the motivation for the film was to show the kind of courage it takes to challenge political machines in different landscapes across the country,” says Lears. Though Vilela, Bush and Swearengin all lost their races, Lears promises that the country has not heard the last of them.

As for Ocasio-Cortez, the director was as astounded as everyone else by her big win. Capturing the jubilation of election night, as the 29-year-old political neophyte gazed open-mouthed at the returns, was an emotional moment.

“I was crying along with everyone else,” says Lears.

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Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Hail Satan?

Satan is so hot right now. From “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” which saw Cody Fern play a chilling Antichrist, to Christian Bale’s shout-out to the devil in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Beelzebub is popping up all over.

Director Penny Lane documents the earnest but noisy efforts of The Satanic Temple to change popular perceptions of its namesake. It’s a religion whose followers support rebellion against the establishment more than any cloven-hooved ruler. 

The founders of the temple seek to point out hypocrisy and prove their thesis that America is not a pluralist country when it comes to respecting religious freedom.

“What’s interesting about them is how much they gum up your everyday thinking,” Lane says of the Satanists’ methodology. An effective example is their response to backlash from Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, a notorious homophobe with a penchant for protesting at the funerals of gay people. In response, members of the temple visited the grave of Phelps’ mother to stage an afterlife conversion to lesbianism.

The film works best when not leaning on spooky iconography and PR stunts to convey a message of tolerance that extends to feminists, the LGBTQ community and nonconformists. Horns are cute, but compelling logic plays better.