Sundance Film Festival: Oprah, Belafonte, and some indie gems in drama and documentary
Oprah launched her documentary film club and Belafonte carries on his social activism full tilt at the Sundance Film Festival, which was abuzz with talk about the digital future of film as much as the indie films themselves.
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Since documentaries are often the highlights of Sundance, it made sense that Oprah Winfrey chose the festival as the official launching pad for her documentary film club on her new OWN network. Playing to an elbow-to-elbow crowd at an invitational do in Sundance House, Oprah breezed in from the wings and made everybody feel as if they should be looking under their seats for a gift (except there were no seats). "It is my intention," she intoned with rock-solid resolution, "to do for documentaries what my book club has done for books." OWN has thus far acquired six films for broadcast and will produce five original two-hour documentaries, including one by Barbara Kopple on the Hemingways.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Sundance Film Festival 2011
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The room was packed with ardent-eyed documentary filmmakers suddenly eager to board the gravy train. The combined gross for theatrical feature-length documentaries last year was less than the opening weekend box-office take for "Megamind." Who knows, maybe Oprah can be a game changer?
She could have programmed an entire lineup of worthies from this year's Sundance. "The Redemption of General Butt Naked" – my personal favorite title among the docs – is about a Liberian warlord who personally massacred, often in his birthday suit, thousands during Liberia's 14-year civil war. Now he's reinvented himself as an evangelist seeking redemption from his victims. I didn't buy his redemption, though, amazingly, inevitably, some of his victims do.
"Crime After Crime" is about Deborah Peagler, who was sentenced to 25-years-to-life for her connection to the murder of the boyfriend who routinely and brutally abused her. Twenty years later, two young attorneys were inspired to reopen her case, thereby opening up a Pandora's box of political corruption that makes even the ordeals of Sisyphus seem like a stroll in the park. (During the festival the gospel choir from the predominantly African-American Cavalry Baptist Church in Salt Lake City performed a few numbers featured in the film.)
The unlikeliest of subjects – the travails of mixed-race kids in a Ukrainian village and the woman who single-handedly raised 23 of them as foster children – becomes the likeliest of inspirational scenarios in "Family Portrait in Black and White." (Oprah, are you listening?)
"Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times," looks primarily at the Gray Lady's media desk at a time when journalism even at the highest realms is under siege. This is not the fullscale portrait of a newspaper that only much wider access could have provided, but it’s often revelatory just the same, especially for news junkies. After the screening, Times media writer David Carr, who appears in the film, explained his job: "We write about people who write about people who actually do things."
"Project Nim" is a problematic documentary from "Man on Wire" director James Marsh about the chimpanzee that, in the 1970s, was the subject of a series of experiments that set out to demonstrate that apes could learn to communicate using sign language.