Sundance 2012: Documentaries dominate

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

Tad Pfeffer/Extreme Ice Survey
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.
Condé Nast Archive/Corbis
'Ethel': A feature length documentary about the remarkable life of Ethel Kennedy, told by her family. In this 1961 photo, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, standing behind him.
Chris Pizzello/AP
Filmmaker Rory Kennedy (l.), director of the documentary 'Ethel,' and Ethel Kennedy (center) chat with Robert Redford (r.), founder of the Sundance Film Festival.

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.

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.

Despite the dangerousness of his dissidence, Ai still manages to enjoy several good meals in this documentary. Suggested blurb: "This film made me very angry – and very hungry."

Chasing Ice is a documentary by Jeff Orlowski about global warming unlike any others I've seen. (Weatherwise, my Sundance experience could be characterized as "Chased by Ice." If only Redford had been a surfer instead of a skier, we might all be watching movies in Kauai.) National Geographic photographer James Balog created the Extreme Ice Survey, in which 30 cameras across three continents record irrefutable evidence of the Earth's melting ice. The sped-up results of this survey have a harrowing power that no set of graphs or stack of statistics can convey. Looking fit as a mountaineer, Balog, at the public screening, spun a cautionary rap. "Carbon fuels used to be our best friend, but now we need new ways of thinking about the world. It's outrageous that the air we share is used as a garbage dump."

As a blood-stirrer, the film is right up there with another Sundance entry, We're Not Broke, which delineates how multibillion-dollar American corporations get away with legally paying virtually no US income taxes. Sundance, of course, is heavily sponsored by corporate underwriters, an irony not lost on Redford. "What I tell them," he said in an interview, "is that it's wonderful to have your support, so long as you don't intrude on our mission. The people that are sponsors are supporting something they believe in. But that something is independence."

"How great is my mother?" Rory Kennedy told the packed house for "Ethel" after its public screening. Earlier in the day, a seemingly endless stream of Kennedys, many of whom stayed to ski, filed into the press tent for what is known in the biz as the "step and repeat" – a species of photo op. Included among them was Ethel Kennedy herself, who later sat for the first public screening of the film. Rory, with whom her mother was pregnant when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, makes no pretense of "objectivity" in her film. It's valuable as a personal historical document, replete with family home footage going back to Ethel's childhood, and also as something more: a testimony to a woman who has lived through a succession of tragedies that would seem almost unendurable and yet who still carries on. (It will be aired by HBO in the summer.)

Two days after her husband was shot, Ethel convened the family and told them, "Be kind to others and work for your country." Speaking now, she cautions, "Nobody gets a free ride. Have your wits about you and dig in and do what you can because it might not last." These moments don't seem platitudinous, just the simple truth. Mother of 11 children, she is no-nonsense. She doesn't deny that she knew so little about cooking that she used to coat the frying pans with Vaseline. Responding to her daughter on camera, she wonders, half huffily, half tongue-in-cheek, "Why should I have to answer all these questions?" Some of the questions, especially concerning the day her husband was shot, she doesn't answer at all.

When I saw her at a reception the next day, I told her she has crack comic timing, right up there with George Burns and Jack Benny. Did she ever consider a career in show business? No answer (but a friendly smile).

The much buzzed-about Lauren Greenfield documentary The Queen of Versailles, a rags-to-riches-to-rags story about Florida billionaire David Siegel and his self-described trophy wife, Jackie, was underwhelming. In part this is because bankruptcy isn't what it used to be: It's difficult to commiserate with a guy whose idea of living low is squatting in a mansion big enough to house – well, the Kennedy clan. (Fun festival sideshow: Siegel is suing the festival and Greenfield, claiming the publicity surrounding the film is defamatory.)

More enjoyable was Matthew Akers's Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, about the famous performance artist whose recent show at the Museum of Modern Art involved patrons, one after the other for perhaps 10 minutes each, sitting across from her in a shared silence. More enjoyable still was the "silent party" Abramovic hosted at a nearby art gallery featuring video images from the film and chichi hors d'oeuvres. About a hundred people upon entry were handed white lab coats and plastic earphones and told not to speak or use their cellphones. A loud clock ticked in the background, for that existential effect. Redford showed up and stood for photo ops. Silence at a film festival, where chatter is rife, is indeed golden, even if more than a few present, including Redford, surreptitiously whispered. The publicist for the film did more than whisper to me. "What do you think of the film?" she wanted to know.

The dramatic movies I caught at Sundance, compared with the docs, seemed fairly middling. Bachelorette, starring a Kirsten Dunst definitely not in "Melancholia" mode, is a "Bridesmaids" knockoff. Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister, with Emily Blunt, was a sort of mumblecore Noel Coward romantic triangle comedy. The yellow peril Australian hot ticket Wish You Were Here, about a tropical getaway gone very wrong in Cambodia, made me wish I wasn't there. So Yong Kim's For Ellen, starring Paul Dano as a dissolute rocker trying to bond with his baby girl, had some heartfelt sequences and lots of longueurs. James Marsh's Shadow Dancer, about IRA unrest and starring Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen, was effective, but it made me wonder why so very many Irish-themed movies are about The Troubles. Maybe I should have turned up for Grabbers, a midnight madness festival entry about an alien invasion off the coast of Ireland where its inhabitants discover that getting drunk is the only way to survive.

It takes all kinds to make a film festival.

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