Documentaries shine at Sundance festival

Documentaries rule at this year's Sundance Film Festival, says our man on the scene, Maryland Film festival major domo Jed Dietz.

"The documentaries are very strong," Dietz says via cell phone while driving from one screening to another (he'd already seen some 40 films by yesterday afternoon). "And they're not as easily categorized as they were four or five years ago. Not very long ago, documentaries meant a certain kind of film, that was public television, educational, that sort of thing. ... But now it's completely open to people, and there are all different kinds of documentaries."


Not that documentaries outnumber feature films at this year's annual gathering of independent filmmakers anxious to show off their wares, their battle scars and their success stories. Among the 137 full-length feature films on the schedule, 46 - nearly 35 percent - are documentaries. Still, that's a record number for Sundance, and just about all the buzz coming out of the festival is centering on nonfiction filmmaking. At least for now, that's where the dominant creative muse seems to have settled.

"I think it has a lot to do with equipment getting better and cheaper," says Dietz, who's hoping to land a few of Sundance's more notable offerings for this year's Maryland festival, scheduled for May 6-9.


Among the best documentaries he's seen so far, Dietz says, are Stanley Nelson's A Place of Our Own, about African-Americans living on Martha's Vineyard ("It's really a totally personal film about him and his father," Dietz says); Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me," in which the filmmaker eats nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days and suffers the consequences ("It's about the obesity issue in America. ... He uses himself as the central anecdote, and from that anecdotal reality, it is really very informative. 60 Minutes would be proud to have this thing"); and Robert Stone's Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, about the fringe group of '70s American radicals best known for kidnapping Patricia Hearst ("Fantastic, beautifully made").

Among the more traditional cinema fare, Dietz had high praise for Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries, a film in which a couple of good friends take a trip through South America and have their consciousness raised by the experience. One of those pals (the movie is based on actual events) is Ernesto Guevara, who would later become famous under a different first name, Che.

"It's a very personal film about these two buddies," Dietz says of Diaries, which stars Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien). "He has shown you this historical figure, this mythic figure, before he was mythic, before he was even Che ... what he's really made is a movie about these two young guys who are trying to figure out what they want to do."

As for the festival itself, Dietz marveled at two aspects in particular of Sundance 2004. The first was its size. "It's grown by another bound," he says, estimating attendance has nearly doubled since last year.

And then there was the weather. While Baltimore is making like an Arctic tundra, Park City, Utah, up among the Rockies, is comparatively balmy.

"People here have been complaining about the lack of snow," Dietz says with a chuckle. "It's probably 20 degrees warmer here than where you are."

Cinema Sundays

Norman Jewison's The Statement - starring Matt Craven as an assassin hired to kill a former Vichy officer (Michael Caine) who ordered the execution of seven Jews during World War II - is this weekend's scheduled feature at Cinema Sundays at the Charles. Showtime is 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the theater, 1711 N. Charles St. Tickets are $15. Information: 410-727-FILM.