Festival Watch, Sundance 2015: Must-See Documentaries

Sundance Institution

From a takedown of Scientology to a loving look at Los Angeles through the eyes of its bourgeoning food scene, don’t miss these non-fiction flicks.

While the cutting-edge narrative films get all the love, Sundance aficionados know that its documentaries are every bit as worthy of attention—and in some cases, even more so. Getting your documentary into the festival is as good as it gets for the non-fiction set: the Sundance stamp of approval opens some big doors (2013’s Blackfish found a home on CNN and made quite the splash); and HBO’s formidable documentary team, led by doc doyenne Sheila Nevins, often chooses to premiere their choicest offerings on Park City’s slopes. So any diligent fest goer would be remiss not to squeeze in at least a few of Sundance’s choicest.

The must-see non-fiction film of the first weekend was Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s complete evisceration of Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, adapted from Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name. While Gibney’s documentary doesn’t reveal any new revelations not found in Wright’s book, the mere act of adding interviews, archival footage and other visuals to Wright’s research makes for a viscerally gut-wrenching experience, particularly the brutal tale of how Scientology cowed the IRS into granting it tax-exempt religious status. As harrowing as the facts Wright uncovered are, Gibney’s filmmaking adds insights and impact in a way only film can: It’s one thing to learn Scientology’s chief David Miscavige bugged Nicole Kidman to destroy her marriage to Tom Cruise and keep him in the fold; but it’s yet another to see for oneself footage of Miscavige and Cruise juxtaposed to illuminate how Cruise subconsciously mimics Miscavige in his most notoriously manic moments. The doc drew audible gasps (and laughter) from the audience; judging by the cool thoroughness of Gibney’s takedown, HBO will need all 160 of those lawyers its hired to defend the film from counterattack.

Of course, you can’t limit yourself to just the big ticket documentaries. Considering how challenging it is for docs to get made at all, it’s wise to check out the eclectic breadth of Sundance’s selections, seeing as you never know when or where they’ll finally pop up in commercial release. Compelled by the sudden renewal of violence in Eastern Ukraine, I made time for Chad Garcia’s The Russian Woodpecker a bizarre, but intriguing investigation led by two Ukrainian filmmakers, Artem and Fedor, searching for the truth behind the Chernobyl meltdown. In the course of their exploration, the two stumble upon a massive over-the-horizon failed radar facility that came to be known in the West as The Russian Woodpecker. I know enough about Soviet Ukrainian/Russian history to know that I don’t know enough to judge the tangled conspiracy theories the film offers about the relationship between The Russian Woodpecker and Chernobyl. But its driving animus is clear enough: Woodpecker is a defiant salvo against Vladimir Putin’s moves to keep Ukraine in the post-Soviet fold. Intentional or not, the most intriguing revelation of the film may be its inadvertent display of the crippled, tortured relationship between Ukraine and Russia, two lands that share so much, yet couldn’t seem farther apart.

My favorite documentary, however, I saved for last. Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold ostensibly takes L.A.’s best known food critic as its subject, but what Gabberts has really done is crafted a loving paean to a vastly misunderstood city with the disarming, thoughtful and Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Jonathan Gold leading us through his foodie paradise of taco trucks, strip mall gems, and Korean hagfish. Gabberts provides plenty of insight into the talent and character of Gold himself, whom native Angelenos considered our best kept secret until he won that pesky award. But in doing so, Gabberts and Gold also decode the secret DNA of Los Angeles for non-natives. With its vibrant creative scene and revitalized urban core, the L.A. area’s recently experienced record-breaking tourism; but it’s still too easy for visitors to be seduced by their preconceived notions of glitz and glamour (cough, Beverly Hills) and come away unsatisfied. What the pair has created is an invaluable corrective that uses the culture of cuisine to demonstrate precisely what’s so precious and unique about this deconstructed megalopolis’s sprawling cultural collage. City of Gold should be mandatory viewing for anyone who actually wants to see, and appreciate, the “real” L.A. Thanks to Sundance, hopefully all you non-Angelenos out there will now get that chance.

For more from Sundance 2015:

Read a review of James Ponsaldt’s The End of the Tour »
Read a review of Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, plus standouts in the Next category »