It’s not entirely surprising that portrait documentaries dominate this year’s Sundance nonfiction lineup. Two of the biggest nonfiction films of 2018 – “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – are profile films that premiered at last year’s Sundance and later made the Oscar docu shortlist.
The success of both docs could help explain why Sundance senior programmers David Courier and Caroline Libresco were bombarded with nonfiction biopic submissions for Sundance 2019. “The trick is to find those [profile docs] that are really cinematic and that transcend this notion of traditional biopic,” says Libresco.
Both programmers didn’t seem to have a problem doing just that. Case in point, 12 of the 13 films that make up the fest’s Documentary Premieres section are portrait docs. Steve Bannon, Miles Davis and Harvey Weinstein are among the many famous and infamous figures being explored. Bio films are also prevalent in the Docu Competition and Docu World Cinema Competition categories. In all, just over 20 profile-driven documentaries are heading to Park City.
“This year we were surprised by how many of these profile films were really doing something different,” says Libresco. “They were telling a life story, yes, but that life story was a way into something much deeper than just one life.”
Two examples are Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and Avi Belkin’s “Mike Wallace is Here.” Via their subjects, both films help explain the rise of the modern right wing.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” shines a blistering spotlight on Cohn, a master manipulator who rose to national prominence by working with Joseph McCarthy, and ultimately helped to guide the career of Donald Trump. Tyrnauer got the idea for the film while piecing together his 2018 docu “Studio 54” during the 2016 Presidential election.
“I had one eye on the election and one eye on hundreds of hours of archival films and still images, which Roy Cohn kept popping up in,” Tyrnauer explains. “Like everyone else, I expected Hillary Clinton to be our next president while Cohn would be consigned to footnotedom. But when Trump won, I realized that Cohn was no longer a footnote in history. He’d become a modern Machiavelli.”
While Tyrnauer points to Cohn as the origin figure for the current political climate in this country, Belkin’s “Mike Wallace Is Here” examines the journalist’s hard-hitting, no-holds-barred style in order to better understand today’s broadcast media outlets such as Fox News.
The doc, which relies solely on archival footage, begins with the “60 Minutes” newsman interviewing Bill O’Reilly. The former Fox News anchor informs Wallace that he was instrumental to his career, which resulted in the “The O’Reilly Factor.”
“Mike’s story tells this much bigger story about broadcast journalism,” Belkin says. “I chose to include the interview between Mike and Bill because it was fascinating to see these two figures that characterized [the field’s] past and present.”
Other portrait docus that tackle the rise of the right are Henrik Georgsson’s “Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played With Fire” about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” author, and Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy,” which follows Brazil’s embattled leaders.
Ursula Macfarlane’s Harvey Weinstein doc, “Untouchable” and Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland,” about Michael Jackson and two boys he befriended, are two high profile examples of biopics that address larger, timely issues including the misuse of power and sexual abuse.
“’Leaving Neverland’ is going to be very controversial because this country wants to love Michael Jackson and we don’t want any of [the sexual abuse accusations] to be true,” says Courier. “So there’s going be people fighting it.”
Courier adds that while the Weinstein docu will also be “explosive,” it’s not a film about the former entertainment mogul’s full life, but instead about specific events in his life.
Like “Untouchable,” Frédéric Tcheng’s film “Halston” is about the rise and fall of a man. Tcheng’s hybrid doc uses archival footage was well as actors to bring the designer – responsible for many iconic moments in American fashion and culture in the ’70s and ’80 – to life. The director intentionally veered away from the standard chronological bio docu when making “Halston” and instead delved into the designer’s life using scripted sequences to help convey the mysterious aspects of the late fashion icon’s existence.
“Fiction played a big part in Halston’s life,” the helmer explains. “There was also all of these parts of his life that he didn’t talk about but people wanted to know about. I wanted to explore and convey that within the film and I felt that making it a hybrid would help me do that.”
Like “Halston,” A.J. Eaton’s “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” Ryan White’s “Ask Dr. Ruth” Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “Toni Morrison” The Pieces I Am” and Garret Price’s “Love, Antosha” are love letters that allow audiences to discover subjects rather than passively receive ideas about them.
Price’s “Love, Antosha” is about actor Anton Yelchin, who was killed in 2016 when he was pinned by his Jeep Grand Cherokee against an entrance post at his Studio City home. To tell the thesp’s story, Price, who never met Yelchin, relied on home movies, journal entries and photos as well as interviews with the actor’s devoted Russian parents and with thesps including Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence.
“I saw the film as a coming of age story that I wanted to tell from Anton’s point on view in a linear fashion,” explains Price.
The director also wanted to tell Anton’s whole story, not just the good parts. By exploring the actor’s personal struggles, Price says that he saw a way to humanize Anton and make him relatable.
“He aspired to honesty in his art and that had to be reflected in this film,” says the helmer. “Ultimately I consider this film a love letter from Anton to his mother and to cinema.”