Sundance Film Festival documentary programmer Hussain Currimbhoy talks to realscreen about the voices of heroines, war survivors and those from the diaspora featured at this year’s festival, as well as what docs to look out for during Sundance’s 10-day run in Park City.
Hussain Currimbhoy, doc programmer with the Sundance Film Festival, says he’s seen a shift in what audiences want at this year’s festival. Having joined Sundance in 2014 following seven years as director of programming for Sheffield Doc/Fest, he says audiences have a desire to see women of all ages doing incredible things. “It’s inspiring,” he says.
Of the 47 docs featured at this year’s festival, 20 have been directed by women. Many also shine a spotlight on influential women in history, including RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s film on U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Seeing Allred, Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman’s doc about powerhouse lawyer Gloria Allred; and Lorna Tucker’s look at fashion designer Vivienne Westwood in Westwood.
Also a focus in this year’s docs are stories about human rights issues.
“I think docs are great when they shine a light on those problems… those issues that come from government or from society,” notes Currimbhoy.
Director Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders (pictured), left the programmer so overwhelmed with emotion that he says he could barely stand after watching it. In the doc, Bombach follows Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi who survived genocide and sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS. As she tells her story to the world, Murad finds herself becoming the voice of her people.
“[Murad] doesn’t want to be a hero, she wants to be a kid like everyone else,” explains Currimbhoy. “She’s thrust into this world where she’s supposed to be a spokesperson for her people. It’s a hard thing to do when you are young and healing yourself.”
Currimbhoy also touched upon films about diaspora that he expects to make an impact at the festival. Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, Stephen Loveridge’s MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A and Sandi Tan’s Shirkers all feature protagonists trying to “reconstitute their character and their identity through film in a landscape where you don’t have a root at times,” he explains.
When asked about controversial films in the festival, Currimbhoy said Stephen Maing’s Crime and Punishment “will surprise people”. The film follows a group of black and Latino whistleblower cops and one private investigator who risk everything to expose illegal quota practices and their impact on young minorities.
Also prevalent are docs featuring the importance of free speech and how it is being threatened. The Cleaners, from Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, follows five individuals out of thousands whose job it is to delete “inappropriate” content from the internet.
“I think the era of free speech is becoming threatened from the highest level,” Currimbhoy says. “It will shock some people, I think.”
Also turning the lens to “truth” is Our New President from festival veteran, director Maxim Pozdorovkin. The doc reveals how American politics is viewed by the Russian public via its domestic fake news outlets. Pozdorovkin collects Russian propaganda aimed at both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump from YouTube, RT and other media platforms. Within the world of misinformation, audiences witness the seeds of the 2016 fake news cycle and how they infiltrated the collective conscience of Russia’s public who is wary of truth and objectivity.
“We think we have it bad. In [Russia] it’s on steroids. Its style and aesthetic are so different you aren’t really sure which world you are inhabiting at times.”
Currimbhoy says siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarín have created an incredibly different aesthetic in their doc 306 Hollywood. The siblings excavate their late grandmother’s house at 306 Hollywood Ave. in Newark, New Jersey, and go on a journey in search of what life remains in the objects we leave behind. For example, after finding a cassette from 1972, the team has actors lip sync to their family’s conversations while staged in the actual locations, wearing their original clothes.
“The way the [Bogarín's] approach it, it wasn’t pretentious, it wasn’t slight. They tried something very different and it worked,” Currimbhoy says.
Currimbhoy also draws attention to the very topical film Dark Money by Kimberly Reed, which examines Montana’s fight against corrupt campaign finance.
“That is a conversation [about dark money] people need to have right now to understand the relationship between outside money and politics,” says Currimbhoy. “It’s a big web and this film makes it easy to understand.”
Rounding out his top picks, the programmer mentions Alexandra Shiva’s This is Home. The latest project from the Peabody Award-winning director follows four Syrian Refugee families in the U.S. who resettle in Baltimore in 2016 and the obstacles they face in adjusting to their new reality.
“They find magical moments in every day and amplify them to expose this humanity with people we might not otherwise meet.”
For a full lineup of the docs playing at Sundance 2018, click here. The Sundance Film Festival takes place from Jan. 18 – 28 in Park City, Utah.
Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute. On Her Shoulders/RYOT FIlms.