About three days into the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, he began appearing everywhere: a mysterious, short, Ben Stiller look-alike, 30ish, with an aggressive set of the jaw. He wore a black, knitted condom of a hat like a dare (“I’m so important, I can look like a dork”). And he talked talked talked into a cell phone as if he held the future of independent filmmaking at his ear.
At a movie theater, waiting for the lights to dim, he nattered, even while greeting actual human beings seated nearby. At Starbucks, oblivious to the snow-booted customers sipping skim lattes all around him, he blabbed. For all I know, he was brokering deals, placing bets, urgently whispering “Don’t forget to pick up dry cleaning!” as a memo to himself on his home answering machine. But if he had hushed up for even a minute, my ubiquitous, anonymous mascot of Sundance ’98 might have noticed this: That the artistry of the documentaries in competition proved, once again, that docus (note to marketers: for more sex appeal, why not call them “nonfiction films”?) are our last truly independent movie-art form, and our most powerful; that a good short film can linger in the mind far longer than a wifty feature about callow lovelies in love; and that, as always in such a high-intensity setting, some of the best films sit quietly outside of competition, available for discovery by anyone willing to get off the phone.
Documentaries Slam was a strong drama, yes — actor-poet Saul Williams practically vibrated with intensity, and the sound of soliloquies spilling from behind prison walls was a thrill. But even poetry slams in the slammer paled beside the power of The Farm, a compassionate film by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus about the maximum-security prison in Angola, La., that won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary (sharing honors with the funny, horrifying Frat House). Years of gaining the trust of inmates — most crucially, earning the support of one of the prison’s longtime residents, Angolite magazine editor Wilbert Rideau — are rewarded with vivid portraits of six men at various crossroads in prison existence, including beginning a life sentence, coming up for parole, waiting on death row, and dying in jail. Matching passion with rigorous filmmaking standards, Stack and Garbus have made an important document, and a great movie.
Indeed, with the bar set so high, documentaries about famous people — among them Barbara Kopple’s savvy portrait of Woody Allen on a neurotic tour of Europe with his New Orleans jazz band (and Soon-Yi Previn) in Wild Man Blues, and a made-for-PBS-pledge-drive middlebrow biography of the larger-than-life architect in Frank Lloyd Wright by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick — were less compelling (and less artistically exciting) than personal documentaries about unfamous people. To make Paulina, about the matter-of-factly brutal younger years of a Mexican housekeeper in a wealthy Mexico City home, Vicky Funari effectively wove scenes of the real, resilient middle-aged woman with dreamlike dramatized scenes from a nightmarish childhood. And in Baby, It’s You, about the last-ditch efforts she and her husband made to conceive a child in their late 40s, filmmaker Anne Makepeace leavened what might otherwise have been too much intimate information with humor, skepticism, and a flinty grace. (Less successful was Some Nudity Required, Odette Springer’s cliche-ridden psychoanalysis of why she ended up working in the schlocky, breast-baring world of B movies.)