Sundance ’16: Nat Geo brings yellow border to Park City

U.S. network National Geographic Channel marked its return to the documentary space with a panel featuring the filmmakers behind several of their forthcoming projects, including directors Brett Morgen and Sebastian Junger.
January 25, 2016

Most festival goers at Sundance probably didn’t expect to see Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck director Brett Morgen gushing over his latest documentary subject, Jane Goodall, at a National Geographic panel on Saturday evening (January 23). In fact, they probably didn’t anticipate the U.S. network’s presence in Park City at all.

Tim Pastore - president of original programming and production at National Geographic Channels – says he doesn’t blame them. “Six years ago, [Nat Geo was] at Sundance with Restrepo. It was powerful, nominated for an Oscar, and a huge rating success. And then for some reason we walked away from the feature doc business,” the exec told the audience.

“Today I am thrilled to announce that we are back, and not gently but with plans to exhibit the power of what the yellow border can truly accomplish,” he added.

The U.S. net revealed a slate of new projects last week, with forthcoming documentaries including the tentatively titled LA 92, on the six-day race riots in Los Angeles, produced by Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn and directed by Undefeated helmers Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin; as well as an archive-focused Jane Goodall project from Morgen.

Also coming up is the Alex Gibney-backed feature documentary and series Parched with director Marina Zenovich on board for the feature, and Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s as-yet-untitled documentary on the wars in Syria and Iraq.

Simon Chinn, Zenovich, Junger and Morgen were among the documentarians who took the stage on Saturday for the “Documentary All-Stars: The Champions of Non-fiction” panel, moderated by New York magazine’s Stacey Wilson Hunt.

Asked about his Goodall doc, Morgen said that after making films on Kurt Cobain, The Rolling Stones and Bob Evans, he was looking to exit the music realm and was eager to take on a story with a female lead “because all my films are about me looking for my father figure,” he joked. The director was then approached by Nat Geo, he said.

“[Jane Goodall's work] is not my forte, but what I’m interested in is archives and once I had access to material, my immediate response was that this is one of the most significant and important depositories of 16 mm in the 20th century,” said Morgen, adding that he got access to hundreds of hours of 16 mm without “a single scratch.”

Unlike many previous films about Goodall, which the director labelled as narration-heavy, he is looking to create an immersive experience that puts people in her shoes. Morgen also noted that, unlike Montage of Heck, this film won’t use animation.

Similarly looking to create an immersive experience is Chinn, who says LA 92 will aim to be purely archive-based, drawing upon the video footage shot by locals during the event.

“In 1992, a kind of birth of user-generated content was upon us and as we started to delve into it, we realized it was the first major [event] that was captured in an extensive way on camera, with people filming on home movie cameras,” said Chinn, who runs the production company Lightbox with cousin Jonathan Chinn.

Junger, whose film was announced in early January, said that safety and ethics were his biggest concerns for his doc project, which follows a family self-documenting their journey out of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, among other principals.

“They were making their way out of Syria to Turkey and Nick Quested – who has done most of the heavy lifting until now – called me from Turkey and said, ‘Is it ethical to give a camera to a family that will become refugees? Is that OK?’” Junger told the audience. “I’d never thought about it before and we had to think through the ramifications of ethics in journalism and filmmaking.”

For her part, Zenovich said that she is trying to make Parched compelling by finding stories about the water crisis that haven’t yet been discussed in much depth. “We know there’s a global water crisis and it is a big subject and we’re digging to find what is the story that needs to be told,” she said.

Hunt touched on a number of different topics throughout the panel, including a question about objective story-telling that led into some strong opinions on Netflix’s Making a Murderer.

Morgen – who insisted that filmmakers should embrace subjectivity – noted that Murderer was leading some audiences to think they were the jury on the Steven Avery case documented in the series.

“The fact people are petitioning based on this 10-hour series and feel like they know the story is kind of crazy to me,” said the filmmaker, referring to the various online petitions created shorted after the series’ December launch. “I don’t think film is good for that type of investigation.”

Elsewhere, Chinn – who said he is doing an eight-part series for Netflix as well as another eight-part series for an unnamed U.S. net – added: “If we’re going to be partisan, it’s absolutely fine but we need to be transparent.”

This year’s edition of Sundance has seen both Nat Geo and Discovery pitch their tents and trumpet their renewed interest in the feature doc genre. As the panel wrapped, in a nod to Nat Geo’s return to Park City, Morgen turned to the audience and said, “Can we just collectively thank Nat Geo for coming back to feature filmmaking? We are so proud to be associated with it.”

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