Sundance ’16: Trevor Groth talks profile docs and picks

The Sundance Film Festival's programming director (pictured, left) gives us his top picks for the fest, and explains why profile films such as Spike Lee's Michael Jackson doc (center) and Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack's Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (right) are abundant in the line-up.
January 20, 2016

The Sundance Film Festival’s director of programming, Trevor Groth (pictured, left), takes us through his top picks for the festival, explains why profile docs – such as Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (center) – are abundant in the line-up, and why he programmed a 7.5-hour documentary on O.J. Simpson. 

Among this year’s crop of documentary premieres at the Sundance Film Festival are archival studies of late musicians Frank Zappa and Michael Jackson, director Mike Nichols, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (pictured, right) and artist Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as biographical docs about TV pioneer Norman Lear, New York heiress Gloria Vanderbilt (interviewed by her son Anderson Cooper), Boyhood director Richard Linklater and film consultant Bob Hawk.

The festival’s director of programming Trevor Groth, now marking his 24th festival since joining the programming team in 1993, says the sheer number of biographical films was immediately evident, particular in a year where archive-heavy films about singers Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone are both contenders for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

“It came into consideration as far as programming them goes, like ‘How many of these can we do?’ You want a balance in the line-up, always,” he explains. “But we tended to include a little bit more than we normally would because they were so great, and they all have unique approaches to telling the stories of these incredible people.”

But why are so many profile docs being made in the first place? Audiences are hungry for it, Groth says. The amount of archival material from an individual’s life is much greater now, not to mention more accessible, so filmmakers are able to tell more complete stories through the resources and material available to them.

“With the Michael Jackson doc that Spike Lee made, looking at the moment in his life where he was transitioning from The Jackson 5 to recording Off the Wall, you see him as this completely passionate and intensely driven artist,” enthuses Groth while discussing the film, which was acquired by Showtime earlier this month, and set to air on February 5.

“You just assume, ‘Well, he’s so talented, of course he was going to achieve everything that he did.’ But this film looks at how focused he was on utilizing that talent, and becoming the superstar that he became,” he says. “There’s awesome archival footage and you really get to celebrate who he was as an artist.”

Among the top profile docs Groth has his eye on are Thorsten Schütte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words – “He was such an unconventional musician and always sort of marched to the beat of his own music,” says the programmer – as well as Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s Robert Mapplethorpe doc, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, another artist working on his own terms in the face of societal challenges; and Karen Bernstein and Louis Black’s Richard Linklater – dream is destiny.

Mapplethorpe came into the festival with HBO attached, and was recently picked up by UK distributor Dogwoof for global rights (excluding the U.S. and Canada), while international rights for Richard Linklater were also snapped up by Dogwoof last week.

O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America

One of the high-profile doc events heading to Park City centers on the case around O.J. Simpson, but unlike the recent crop of docs and specials, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America runs for 7.5 hours and follows both the rise and fall of Simpson, while unpacking the issues behind celebrity and race in America. The festival is screening the doc in two parts on Friday (January 22), followed by an extensive Q&A.

Groth calls Made in America one of his favorite films at Sundance, and predicts the doc – which is set to premiere on ESPN this June in a five-night engagement – will be one of the year’s biggest television events.

“The director found a way of just telling this truly incredible story of O.J. Simpson and everything he was and became, and is now. And he intertwines it with what was going on in the country and LA around racial politics, and the way he’s able to do that is remarkable. I want to watch it again, there’s so much in there,” he says.

Asked if the documentary will provide the type of reveal that hungry true crime fans have come to expect since the success of Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Groth says audiences might be surprised by more obscure aspects of the case, and adds that Edelman’s access is what’s most impressive, and could potentially change minds.

“I don’t just understand what happened with O.J. and that crazy story better, I understand America better and how we deal with celebrity in America, how we deal with race in America,” he says. “I’m changed because we saw this film.”

Elsewhere in Park City, two docs on gun violence in the U.S. – Kim Snyder’s Newtown and Stephanie Soechtig’s Under the Gun – will be the focus of a panel moderated by Katie Couric and exploring the “policies, reforms and human experiences” around the frequent gun violence in America, while Gasland director Josh Fox – back at Sundance with How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change – will join Racing Extinction director Louie Psihoyos and Reflections on Elephants directors Beverly and Dereck Joubert to discuss the state of environmental docs.

Meanwhile, returning to the festival with feature documentaries are such master filmmakers as Werner Herzog, whose film Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World studies the Internet revolution and our interconnected lives; and filmmaking partners and spouses Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, who bring to Sundance their longest-term project to date, Unlocking the Cage, a profile of animal rights activist Steven Wise that was four years in the making.

Asked what films he expects to attract a lot of attention at the festival, and on this year’s doc circuit, the programming director quickly points to Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, about the literary “avatar” created by San Francisco musician Laura Albert, as well as Finders Keepers director Clay Tweel’s latest Sundance entry, Gleason, on NFL icon Steve Gleason’s self-documented journey with ALS.

Groth also notes that Newtown and Under the Gun will likely get their share of coverage, while Josh Kriegman Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, on politician Anthony Weiner’s attempted comeback, is “just a fascinating watch.”

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.