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Sundance: Glitz gets low profile as festival goes back to basics

Documentaries were the winners this year with films about Pat Tillman, cane toads, and a cautionary tale about Facebook called ‘Catfish.'

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Another powerful documentary is Jennifer Arnold’s “A Small Act,” which is about Chris Mburu, a poor Kenyan boy who, because his primary and secondary school education was sponsored by an anonymous Swedish woman, became a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer for the United Nations and went on to found his own scholarship fund. The woman, Hilde Beck, now in her 80s, is, it turns out, a Holocaust survivor. When she and Mburu finally meet, we see it on film. We see much else, too. Arnold follows the stories of three Kenyan primary school classmates as they attempt to qualify for scholarships, and their journey is seemingly no less insurmountable than Mburu’s was. As Arnold said in a postscreening interview, the prospects for poor Kenyan schoolchildren who do not advance academically is bleak: Within two years of dropping out of school, the girls become pregnant. The boys become servants or guards for the wealthy. And so the cycle of impoverishment continues.

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I did get to meet Hilde Beck at a dinner reception for documentary filmmakers. For someone who claims to disdain the spotlight, this under-five-foot dynamo was having a high old time. She even invited me to visit her in Sweden. I may take her up on it.

There were other standout documentaries. Leon Gast’s “Smash His Camera” focuses on Ron Galella, the now 78-year-old paparazzo best known for provoking Jackie Onassis into serving him with a restraining order. He also once had his jaw broken by Marlon Brando. Such are the wages of fame. Galella is a charming and disarming camera subject, which is surprising given that he’s essentially a species of stalker. I asked him after the screening if he preferred to shoot his subjects – I almost said “victims” – with or without their cooperation. “What I look for is the candid,” he said. I think I detected a half smile.

The title of Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” pretty much says it all. Now jailed Washington superlobbyist Jack Abramoff’s involvement in everything from native American casinos to Chinese sweatshops is so minutely detailed that, watching this film, I suffered scandal overload. In the wake of Bernie Madoff, Abramoff may seem like old news. But his career, as Gibney makes clear, is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the way we do political business in America, and this is far from old news.

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