Sundance Programmer Previews The Documentary Category

Jan 24, 2019

Credit Sundance Institute

Ever since the first film festival appeared in Park City, documentaries have been a big part of the event.

Sundance programmer Harry Vaughn came by our studios to talk about the “doc” highlights for 2019.

You can easily say this year’s documentaries are all Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll—since there are films about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Michael Jackson and David Crosby. But there are many more stories and topics on hand.

Vaughn said he saw over 400 films preparing for this year’s festival. He said that in many cases, he saw the entire film.

“I think people tend to have a misconception that programmers watch the first five minutes and turn it off, but we get scared about missing things. Especially in documentary films where kind of a blockbuster revelation can happen twenty minutes in so you’ve really got to stick with it so we’ve watched quite a few films.”

He said that in recent years, many of the documentaries have been what he calls “portrait films.” They’re not just glorifications of the person involved, and they’re not just biographies, but films that touch on deeper themes.

One example, he said, is the film about David Crosby, “Remember My Name.”

“It’s not just about him as a famous rock star it doesn’t just check off all those music doc, bio doc troupes. It’s one of the most personal, kind of naked interview films I’ve ever seen. With David Crosby just laying everything on the line about his life.” Being a jerk too, Leslie Thatcher added Vaughn replied, “Oh being a total jerk sometimes, admitting to it. Admitting to relationships in which he totally screwed up and really realizing that there’s certain things at his age he can’t fix and having to come to terms with that. That kind of vulnerability just stunned us. This is a very famous man who’s done so well for himself he could have found a way to craft a film that was very hagiographic and very positive about him, but he decided to stick with the truth.”

He said another film likely to generate buzz will be “Where’s My Roy Cohn”, about the notorious lawyer whose career began with Senator Joe McCarthy and ended with Donald Trump.

“He really helped create a language that is still being utilized today. I think that film is going to generate a lot of buzz and conversation. Matt Tyrnauer was with us last year with “Studio 54” which was such a fun look at the decadent past and this is a darker and more incisive look.” KPCW asked if the election of Donald Trump inspired Tyrnauer to jump on the project, Vaughn says, “Gosh, I think this has been a project that he’s been working on for more than a couple of years. Even in the film “Studio 54” he plays a supporting player, so I think Matt’s had his eye on Roy for some time.”

Another highlight, he said, is “Mike Wallace is Here” about the legendary newsman. Vaughn said the film looks at Wallace’s then-new form of journalism, the impacts it had for good or bad, and whether it helped turn journalism into entertainment.

Turning to some of the international documentaries, he said that one must-see is called “Honeyland.”

“This is about a woman in a practically abandoned village in Macedonia who is one of the worlds best bee-keepers and I think one of the last who does it in this purely organic way. 50% she leaves for the bees 50% she takes to sale. This is interrupted by a really ruckus family that moves in and they start borrowing her techniques which she happily teaches them but then they start destroying her techniques. It’s about her survival and the bee’s survival.”

Also, with an environmental bent, the film “Sea of Shadows” looks at the situation facing a small whale species called the Vaquita.

“It’s near extinction because of a huge underground trade system that I had no idea about between China and Mexico. They’re capturing a different type of fish for this market but in capturing that fish they’re killing that whale that you mentioned that small whale the vaquita and destroying an ecosystem in the process. This film kind of reminds me of a smorgasbord of environmental documentaries that we’ve shown before in that it mixes activism with intense journalistic pursuit.”

Finally—Sundance programmers usually don’t want to say they have a favorite film. But Vaughn said if you could seek out any one film after the festival, he recommends an American documentary that he calls an epic.

““American Factory” and it’s in our US documentary competition. It’s directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar and it is just one heck of a story. It’s about a shuttered Dayton, Ohio factory that is purchased by a Chinese billionaire and his idea, his experiment is to bring 50% of his work force from China to work with the locals who are getting re-hired in that factory. So, it’s a real microcosm of watching two completely different cultures and also two powerhouse economies trying to work together. Things get very very complicated.”