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Sundance 2012: Documentaries dominate

'Ethel,' about R.F.K.'s wife, and 'The Invisible War' leave a somber aftertaste.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / January 27, 2012

National Geographic photographer James Balog hangs off a cliff by Columbia Glacier, Alaska to install a time-lapse camera. Balog created the Extreme Ice Survey, in which 30 cameras across three continents record irrefutable evidence of the Earth's melting ice.

Tad Pfeffer/Extreme Ice Survey

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Ethel Kennedy hates her first name. I would not have known this had I not seen the terrific documentary Ethel by her filmmaker daughter Rory Kennedy. A festival favorite, "Ethel" is one of several hundred features and shorts playing here at the annual snowbound Sundance festival centered in Park City, Utah, where journalists who spend their waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours in dark screening rooms are ringed by – taunted by – ski slopes reaching high into the sky.

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Founded by Robert Redford in 1981, Sundance remains the premier showplace – and marketplace – for independent filmmakers. It is more inexpensive than ever to make movies; shoestring budgets are stringier than ever. At least one film at this festival, the horror anthology V/H/S, was apparently shot entirely on a laptop. Distribution systems are more wide-ranging, too. Theatrical release is no longer the only game in town: Now there's VOD (video on demand), streaming, and who knows what else.

And yet the emphasis here at Sundance this year is still on the theatrical event. Nothing can replace watching a movie on a big screen with a big audience.

When there is a film as powerful as The Invisible War, that sense of communality is almost essential to the experience. This year I focused my filmgoing predominantly on documentaries, always the high point of Sundance. This one, by Kirby Dick, exposes a subject – the high prevalence of rape in the military – that, amazingly, has never before been addressed in a movie. A succession of servicewomen and one serviceman recount their horrific stories as the statistics pile up: About 500,000 women have been sexually assaulted in the US military (and about 80 percent of assaults go unreported).

An estimated 30 percent of female soldiers and at least 1 percent of male soldiers are sexually assaulted during their enlistment – by their fellow soldiers. Only 2 percent of those accused of assault are convicted. The film calls for nothing less than an overhaul of the justice system so that victims feel safe in reporting these crimes and attackers are punished.

One of the interviewees, Kori Cioca, is unable to get disability relief for serious injuries sustained in her attack while serving in the US Coast Guard. She says she can't imagine a life without pain. After the film's public screening, the producer was approached by a local couple who said they would pay for all of the soldier's medical bills. When told of the gift, Cioca, and everyone within earshot, started sobbing.

Watching the Alison Klayman documentary Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, a lot of us felt like cheering. Ai is a world-class artist and architect who is also one of China's most outspoken dissidents. His mantra is, "If you don't act, the danger becomes stronger." The film humanizes him without detracting from the symbolic importance he holds for a new generation of Chinese, who avidly follow his rallying cry, "Don't retreat, retweet." Ai was detained for 81 days in 2011 by the Chinese government just as this film, which was shot over three years, was wrapping up, giving it a special poignancy. As the film makes clear, what happens to Ai is vitally important to understanding China's – and by extension, the world's – future.

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