Only two more posts to go! And so: a page on documentaries, the films I tend to see the least of during Sundance. This isn't a matter of taste, simply that docs have a different shelf life to features, especially those geared to contemporary hot-button topics. I did, however, make time for Fredrik Gertten's Big Boys Gone Bananas*, which offers a sobering lesson to filmmakers who believe that all they need is the moral high ground and a just cause.
Though I would say it struggles to exist as a feature in its own right, since it relies an awful lot on the fallout from the issues raised in Gertten's 2009 film, Bananas!* (I've no idea why the asterisk is there), Big Boys… does have a lot to say about the way multinationals try to control their public image. In a nutshell, Gertten's first film dealt with the plight of Nicaraguan plantation workers who (successfully) sued food conglomerate Dole for use of life-threatening chemicals. Though the workers were vindicated, and the company subsequently changed its farming methods, this didn't stop Dole pursuing Gertten through the courts, and the media, to get his film stopped by any means necessary. If they'd won, there clearly wouldn't be a movie here, but although its payoff is easily seen coming, Big Boys... is a refreshing affirmation of people power in an age of globalisation and a reminder that a seemingly mechanical company is often the creation of an internal herd mentality.
Two docs especially stayed with me, one being the amazing Room 237 (pictured), which, assuming the Kubrick estate sees the humour and importance of this absolutely brilliant film, ought to become a late-night DVD and rep cinema classic. Rodney Ascher's engrossing doc takes as its subject Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror milestone The Shining, and, without recourse to talking heads, uses the film itself to illustrate a series of theses ever more strange than the last. One critic decides that the film is about the extermination of the Native American, another thinks it is an allegory for the Holocaust, which is 'supported' by the regular appearance of the number 42, the year that the Final Solution was first said to have been discussed by Adolf Hitler's government. My favourite dissection, though, is by the guy who believes Kubrick made the film as a mea culpa after faking the 1969 moon-landing footage and struggling to keep this a secret from his wife.
Although, by rights, it should be a crackpot special, the selling point of Room 237 is that it doesn't disdain these interpretations. Many go too far, especially in the over-analysis of some very minor plot points, but the fact remains that Kubrick was fastidious and all-consuming when it came to research. What Ascher does quite brilliantly is to set up the film's space in a way that reflects the weird, Mobius-strip thinking that went into designing the film's Overlook Hotel, a building that constantly defies logic with rooms and windows that really shouldn't be there. But perhaps more than that, the film plays mesmerising mind games with Kubrick's reputation as a perfectionist. Just as the moon landing theory seems played out, we see a clip from the film in which Jack Torrance's son Danny, an ESP-gifted child, stands up to reveal that he is wearing… a handmade Apollo 11 jumper! Why? We may never know. But the genius of this film is that it forces us into the role of assessors, trying to fathom just how far ahead this visionary director really was away from us.
I very much liked Matthew Akers' Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, a potted bio of the Belgrade-born artist that focuses on her 2010 exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art. Abramovic is a young-seeming woman of (now) 65 whose entire life's work consists of challenging physical work that almost inevitably involves nudity. For her big NY retrospective she entrusts that to a hand-picked punch of art students who recreate several of her key works; one, rather superbly, consists of nothing more than a narrow doorway with naked people on either side whom gallery-goers must squeeze past. The masterwork, however, she keeps for herself: every day, for a total of nearly 736 hours, she will make herself available at a tale and chair for individual members of the audience to sit with, for however long they like. (Mercifully few seem to want to make a day of it.)
It sounds like pretentious artbore nonsense, but Abramovic's hardcore, flinty but always rational personality is what drives this film, and even those with no capacity for performance art should be able to at least comprehend its appeal. Abramovic gives a ridiculous amount of herself to each sitting – each performance – the bulk of it never to be seen again, and the impact is quite moving. Isn't that what every artist claims to do but never physically does? In this respect, the film says a lot in a post-Occupy Wall Street world: personal gestures are meaningful and not to be underestimated.
Being your own art statement formed the subject of one of the most commercial docs, Malik Bendjelloul's crowd-pleasing Searching For Sugar Man, about the quest by two white South Africans to find Rodriguez, a musician who once soundtracked their country's struggle for liberty. The film's success depends rather a lot on whether one buys into the Detroit-born singer's music, which sounds like a mix of the equally tragic Arthur Lee and Jackson C Frank (albeit with a hint of post-those-two Prince), but there is a lot to enjoy in the sleuthing, especially when the presumed-cold trail – Rodriguez is presumed to have committed suicide onstage – suddenly warms up.
British director Bart Layton's The Imposter, however, is the other film that most affected me, a jaw-dropping story that continues to wrongfoot right until its spine-chilling end. It begins in 1994, when a 13-year-old boy goes missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, he seems to reappear – in Linares, Spain. As the film very quickly establishes, this is not the same boy at all. It's not even a boy. A 23-year-old man, for reasons we'll never understand, has begun adopting the personas of underage boys, with the perceived intent of passing through children's homes. Here, though, he sees a bigger scam, and when given the opportunity by Interpol decides to pose as the adolescent, blond American, despite being almost ten years older, swarthy and, er, French.
Layton's film works mostly because it sets a trap that snaps quite perfectly. The tension – why is he revealing so much so soon? – goes up a gear when we learn a little more about the family who accepted this interloper, refusing to denounce him even after immigration started having second thoughts. The result is a taut, economic piece of storytelling that, though it never hits the chilling paydirt it threatens to, definitely taunts us with a rich, lurid American Gothic mystery.