Exclusive: Sundance 2012 documentaries preview

Ahead of the official unveiling of the first batch of non-fiction picks for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival later this week, realscreen exclusively profiles five hot documentaries understood to have made the cut and set to premiere in Park City next year.
November 29, 2011

The importance of Sundance for feature length documentaries grows larger and larger each year.

One only needs look at the number of films that received their world or North American premieres there in January this year to see the influence the festival holds on the rest of the year’s calendar.

Consider the 2011 premieres: Project Nim, If A Tree Falls, Buck, Hell and Back Again, Sing Your Song, We Were Here (all on the doc Oscar shortlist), The Interrupters (went on to win at Miami and Sheffield), The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (went on to open Hot Docs and Sheffield), Senna (awards from LA, Melbourne, Adelaide, the IDA), Being Elmo, Hot Coffee, (both winners in Seattle), Page One, Position Among the Stars… the list goes on and on.

With its selections now locked, Sundance will unveil its full list of 2012 film selections for its 28th annual event over the next fortnight, starting tomorrow (November 30) with the U.S. documentary films.

This will be followed by the Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, NEXT and New Frontier programs (December 1); the international documentary premieres (December 5), and the short film program (December 6).

Ahead of these announcements however, realscreen profiles five anticipated docs that are understood to have made the cut for January’s annual excursion to Utah…

The House I Live In

eugene jarecki

Director: Eugene Jarecki (pictured above)

(World Premiere)

What it’s about: Jarecki’s latest doc, some four years in the making, is a wide-ranging examination of America’s war on drugs, examining how the government’s current policy has its roots in the country’s history, with a particular focus on black America.

The film covers an ambitious spectrum of interviewees, from lawyers and journalists to junkies and judges, in a bid to become the definitive American film on the subject. realscreen first revealed details of the project back in June, when it was in production under the working title of Ghetto.

Why it’s hot: As a former Sundance winner, Jarecki has good form at the festival. His breakthrough doc, Why We Fight, picked up the event’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary in 2005, and his political doc Reagan played at the festival earlier this year.

The House I Live In is billed by one source with knowledge of the project as being “hugely ambitious,” and “Jarecki’s masterpiece.” Imagine The Wire condensed into a two-hour documentary.

China Heavyweight

yung chang

Director: Yung Chang (pictured above). Producer: Peter Wintonick/EyeSteelFilm

(World premiere)

What it’s about: Set in central China, the film looks at a master coach who recruits poor rural teenagers and turns them into Western-style boxing champions. The students turn up to spar filled with Olympic ambitions, hoping to become China’s next amateur heroes. Meanwhile, the doc also looks at Chinese entrepreneurs and U.S. promoters who see China as the last frontier of professional boxing, and a field ripe for exploitation.

Why it’s hot: The project is billed by Canuck prodco EyeSteelFilm as being the first major coproduction for a feature doc between China and Canada. First pitched at the Hot Docs Forum (then known as the Toronto Documentary Forum) in 2010, the doc caught the eye of many a commissioner there, thanks to a great trailer and an entertaining, boxing announcer-style pitch from producer Wintonick.

The film’s Chinese-Canadian director, Yung Chang, won significant critical acclaim for his 2007 effort Up the Yangtze, and eyes will be keenly trained on him to see how his follow-up fares. Already onboard are a host of international TV nets including Japan’s NHK, Finland’s YLE, the UK’s Channel 4 and Germany’s ZDF-Arte, and with the 2012 Olympics approaching, the doc is well-timed.

Queen of Versailles

lauren greenfield

Director: Lauren Greenfield (pictured above). Producer: Danielle Renfrew

(World premiere)

What it’s about: Queen of Versailles follows billionaires David and Jacqueline Siegel and their attempts to build the biggest house in America (affectionately dubbed ‘Versailles’) – a 90,000 sq foot palace just outside Orlando, which features 23 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms, 10 kitchens and three pools. Those plans are impacted by the arrival of the global economic crisis.

Why it’s hot: The BBC-backed project was pitched at the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam in November 2010 to much interest from the assembled international commissioners. Greenfield’s previous docs, kids + money and Thin (the latter of which played in competition at Sundance in 2006), were both broadcast by HBO, and she is considered a promising talent in the non-fiction space.

With the economy still struggling, Versailles offers an insight into the belt-tightening being undertaken at the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and – judging by last year’s IDFA trailer – the film has plenty of potential for slightly absurd comic relief.

5 Broken Cameras

Directors: Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

(North American premiere)

What it’s about: 5 Broken Cameras looks at Palestinian farmer Emad, who since 2005 has been documenting his village’s resistance to advancing Israeli settlements, using the five cameras of the title. Each camera tells part of the story, beginning with Emad recording Israeli bulldozers ripping olive trees from the ground, and building up towards fiercer and fiercer conflicts.

The film features some hard hitting footage, as Emad remains determined to continue documenting, despite pleas from his wife and an ever increasing risk of violence. It has support from Ikon in Holland, YLE in Finland and the Asian Cinema Fund Korea, and was recently acquired by France Televisions.

Why it’s hot: Aside from main prize-winner Planet of Snail, the doc was the talk of the town among producers and programmers at IDFA in Amsterdam last week, garnering almost universal acclaim from those who caught screenings of it.

The heat and chatter intensified later in the week following the festival’s awards, where it won the both the Special Jury Award and the IDFA Audience Award. Israel and Palestine are always contentious topics, and this doc looks set to be a particularly incendiary – and innovative – addition to the canon.

Putin’s Kiss

Director: Lise Birk Pedersen

(North American premiere)

What it’s about: This coming-of-age doc follows Marsha, a 19-year-old spokeswoman for Nashi, a patriotic youth movement which seeks to rid Russia of its ‘enemies.’

Marsha once kissed Putin on the cheek, and is a staunch supporter of the Russian leader – that is, until she comes into contact with members of the liberal opposition, whose opinions and beliefs force her to question her ideology and re-evaluate her hitherto unquestioning loyalty to the charismatic prime minister.

Why it’s hot: Another feted selection from IDFA, where it played last week and was a surprise hit. The doc features great access and several observers watching the film have remarked on disconcerting similarities between the Nashi movement and the Hitler Youth. Among the film’s backers are ITVS, Danish broadcaster DRTV, and Scandi nets YLE and NRK.

Other possibilities in the mix:

the ambassador

Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador (pictured above), in which the Danish director acquires a diplomatic passport and travels to the Central African Republic to investigate the trade in blood diamonds, is a strong contender to make the Sundance line-up, having opened IDFA earlier this month to much chatter.

In addition, Joe Berlinger, the director of Crude and co-director of the Oscar-shortlisted Paradise Lost 3, is understood to have submitted a film to premiere in Park City, although further details are unknown at present.


CORRECTION: The film synopses contained within this preview article were sourced from various releases during the production and development stages of the projects. Realscreen has been informed that the summary on Queen of Versailles contained inaccuracies regarding the financial status of the film’s subjects, the Siegels, and the impact of the economic crisis of 2008 upon the house the couple was having built. The Siegels did not “sell off the unfinished property” as per original synopses for the film and reprinted in the original version of this article, and the story has been updated with revised information.

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