Sundance ’14: Caroline Libresco’s top 10 doc tips

With Sundance kicking off tomorrow in Park City, the festival's senior programmer Caroline Libresco (pictured) talks realscreen through some of the documentaries that, while unknown now, will likely be on everyone's tongues by the end of the fest.
January 15, 2014

With Sundance kicking off tomorrow (January 16) in Park City, the festival’s senior programmer Caroline Libresco (pictured) talks realscreen through some of the documentaries that, while unknown now, will likely be on everyone’s tongues by the end of the festival.

“Documentaries make such a strong stand in the festival,” offers Caroline Libresco, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. “There are about 42 documentaries, which is over a third of the festival.”

The non-fiction offerings at the Park City event play in the U.S. and world documentary competition sections, typically reserved for newer filmmakers, and the Documentary Premieres section, which features work from well-established documentarians such as Steve James, Rory Kennedy, Stanley Nelson, Joe Berlinger and Alex Gibney.

“We try to program a very diverse slate that hits on topics and we each make formal choices, so every film is very distinct from every other film playing in the festival,”  Libresco explains. “So you’ll see a lot of variability in the documentaries – each has it’s own story and artistic vision.”

In order to shine a spotlight on some of the films in the competition categories, Libresco – who has been with the festival since 2001 – offers five highlights for each program:

World documentary competition:

“I want to call out We Come as Friends, Hubert Sauper’s film. This is the director of Darwin’s Nightmare and is part of a trilogy of films looking at globalization and colonialism in Africa. This time he turns his camera on South Sudan – it’s a very poetic and provocative film.

“People may not know about this extraordinary film called The Green Prince. Nadav Schirman is an Israeli filmmaker working in Germany and this is his third documentary. He creates a real life thriller out of a relationship between a Palestinian spy for the Israelis and his spy handler. It’s dark, it’s complex and it’s completely gripping.

“Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is a film by Berit Madsen, who turns her camera on a teenage girl living in in a small town in Iran. It’s about her intrepid journey to becoming an astronomer and astronaut, like her idol, Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space. The camera is everywhere you’d want it to be, in those moments in conflict with her uncle who doesn’t want her to go out at night and, I won’t give away what else happens, but the camera is always there.

“Return to Homs, which opened IDFA in November, is an extraordinary story of two young Syrians living in the beleaguered area of Homs, Syria. They start out as pacifist activists, trying to fight for the liberation of their country, and the film follows them as they become embroiled in the battle of Homs, and how that pacificism turns to violent means and they become completely enmeshed. The camera is in the middle of fighting, and everywhere a news camera could never go.

“My Prairie Home is a very quiet, lovely documentary about a musician named Rae Spoon who lives in the Canadian prairies. The film is a musical doc that takes us on a journey with Rae Spoon as she performs these extraordinary staged music videos, interspersed with the way her life was told through the prairies. it’s a journey through emotional landscapes and a musical dream.”

U.S. documentary competition: 

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart is a film about how the media forms public opinion in America. In this case, the trial of Pamela Smart was the first ever televised trial in the history of the American justice system. The film explores this fascinating and juicy trial and how the media was shaping public opinion about Smart and shaping the outcome of the trial.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is about open source [issues] and who owns the knowledge of the Internet. Aaron Swartz was a precocious teenager who made it his life’s work to fight these issues. He’s an extraordinary character and in a way he was fighting for all of us.

The Overnighters, by Jesse Moss, transports you to a tiny town in North Dakota where there’s an oil rush going on because of natural gas. Because of the slump in the U.S. economy, thousands of men in the past three to five years have been arriving in this town and towns like it to get jobs. All these men are descending on this town called Williston and, when they arrive, they realize there’s very little work and no place to live. A wildly passionate pastor who runs a church in the town starts to invite these vagrants into the church to live and [the film documents] how the town reacts to that.

“Watchers of the Sky is about big ideas and is directed by Children Underground director Edet Belzberg. She’s looking at a man named Raphael Lemkin; a Polish Jew who in the 1920s saw the destruction of the Armenian people by the Turks and coined the term ‘genocide’ to describe it. Fast forward 20 years and his family is the victim of a genocide in Poland. He was a lawyer and he started to think about how this could happen, how a whole people could be wiped out, and this was before the Holocaust. He thought about how international law could address and prevent such a tragedy.

“Finally, I think Dinosaur 13 is a film that people will really be interested in. This is a thriller, following a group of amateur archeologists who make one of the greatest discoveries in archeological history – this huge dinosaur, which reveals so much about evolution and paleontology. Just as they’re making this extraordinary discovery, the feds find out and it becomes a story about who owns these discoveries; who owns the collective history.”

  • The 2014 Sundance Film Festival takes place in Park City, Utah from January 16-26. 
  • Check out trailers for 14 docs playing at the festival here.
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