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From Fracking to Freedom Riders, Documentaries at Sundance Take on Wide Range of Human Rights & Social Justice Issues

StoryJanuary 29, 2010
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As we broadcast from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, we look at its documentary film program that focuses on stories of human rights, social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression. This year the festival includes twenty-eight feature-length documentaries from the United States and around the world. They feature a wide range of subjects, including an abortion clinic in Florida, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, natural gas fracking, the Freedom Riders, Chinese migrant workers, and many more. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We wrap up this week, broadcasting here from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, with a look at its documentary film program. The beginning of the week, we started with Robert Redford — yes, the actor, the movie star — who founded Sundance. But now we’re going to hone in now on the documentary stories of human rights, social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression. This year the festival includes twenty-eight feature-length documentaries on subjects from fracking, to the Freedom Riders, from abortion, to the Pat Tillman story.

And we’re joined by Cara Mertes, the director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Sundance Documentary Fund. She’s joining us here from Sundance headquarters in Park City, Utah.

Cara, welcome to Democracy Now!

CARA MERTES: And welcome to you, Amy. It’s great to have you here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what this subset of the Sundance Film Festival — some people may think of the Sundance Film Festival as just glitterati. I have to say, we haven’t seen any of that here, as we go from one documentary to another all through Park City. Explain what this program is.

CARA MERTES: Bob Redford has been the person that’s really defended documentary for thirty years. He really had a vision that the combination of issue and storytelling through documentary was going to become more and more important. I don’t think even he would have predicted how important it’s become. And I’ve been thinking about it recently, as I’ve been saying that urgency is the final ingredient in the evolution of documentary. And I —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “urgency”?

CARA MERTES: Urgency. We have great need now, and we have no time. So we need to get stories out very quickly. And these are stories of both the challenges and the solutions. And so, I think of film as a kind of perfect vessel to transmit these stories to the many millions of people that need to hear them. And having the Sundance Festival as a platform that gets out to the world and draws attention to these stories and also platforms the art of storytelling within these issues, it’s an extraordinary thing.

So, the Documentary Film Program, though, to get to sort of what this subset is, you can think of our programs at the institute as a kind of year-round set of activities. And we support feature filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, theater composers — theater and film composers. And we work year round with artists building projects, supporting them with — in the case of the documentary program, we have a fund, we have creative labs, and we have workshops. And gosh, I probably go around the world twice a year, three times a year, twenty trips with my staff, presenting documentary internationally, independent documentary.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the twenty-eight documentaries, how many applied to have their films here?

CARA MERTES: Oh, my goodness. Thousands. I think Sundance Film Festival gets the most documentaries of probably any film festival in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And for the first time, you’ve brought it out all over the country.

CARA MERTES: Yes, this is Sundance USA, was yesterday. And John Cooper, who’s the new festival director, and the team decided that going out to eight cities for one night, simultaneously premiering in eight cities across the country, and bringing the dialogue of culture and its impact in the arts was a really important thing to do. And what I love about it is, you know, we live in a — everybody talks about how virtual we’re becoming. And so, what does Sundance do, is send out the filmmakers to be face to face in the theater to have an experience and a dialogue around the issues that are in the film. And they’re both features and documentaries that went out.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us some examples of the documentaries that have been showing through this week, truly remarkable documentaries.

CARA MERTES: Oh, my gosh! You know, I’ve been working in documentary for twenty years, and, you know, this year’s crop of documentarians, sophisticated storytelling, urgent issues — I mean, I just haven’t seen a lineup like this. So, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are here with Restrepo, which is an amazing story about the war on the eastern front in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: They were embedded with the US soldiers.

CARA MERTES: They were embedded with the US soldiers.

We have a story from China by a Chinese filmmaker, called The Last Train Home, Lixin Fan. And it’s very difficult to work in China to tell these stories, and he’s decided to stay in country. And it’s about the world’s largest human migration, which happens in China once a year. A hundred and thirty million people go home for New Year’s. And so, he charts that and really puts a human face on the issue of economic development in China by following — in these 130 million people, he follows one family, and he shows what’s happening, fracturing these families, separating them in order to make a very, very basic living, so that they can get an education. It’s a universal story.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of fracturing, fracking.

CARA MERTES: Fracking.


CARA MERTES: GASLAND, Josh Fox’s film, yes. That’s probably the fastest turnaround on a grant that we’ve had within the documentary program. We saw this — he’s bringing an issue that is really quite unknown in this country, hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to the use of natural gas and the idea that natural gas is somehow going to solve, you know, some of our energy problems. And he just takes that apart. And the way he does it is by going around the country interviewing people whose land rights are being taken up, the mineral rights are being taken up. Hydraulic fracturing, you know, puts toxic chemicals in the ground, and he’s contaminating — it contaminates well water. And so, he profiles this incredible coalition of people you’d never see in the same room together — ranchers, you know, people that are not normally affected, or you don’t see them becoming active. And it’s an incredible story.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the pieces we’re going to be featuring next week is Freedom Riders, as we move into Black History Month. Stanley Nelson.

CARA MERTES: Yeah, Stanley Nelson’s piece. He’s such an astonishing filmmaker. And this story of the Freedom Riders and really honing in on the coalition that formed and the activity that happened with Freedom Riders, I think, is an important, really important message for today. The strategies of 1961 are strategies we can still be learning from today in all of the movements that we’re working on.

AMY GOODMAN: And last night, the premiere of The Shock Doctrine.

CARA MERTES: The Shock Doctrine. Naomi Klein was here to speak with Bob Redford on a panel, and Michael Winterbottom, and Mat Whitecross. And they were all here really to talk about art and its place — issue and storytelling and its place in this dialogue. And Michael Winterbottom and Mat adapted some of the ideas in Shock Doctrine, and a thousand people stayed in that theater for the Q and A. You could just see the hunger of the audience to get a hold of a thesis and a critique, that they could begin to understand what’s been going on in this country for the last thirty years.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Tillman Story and Secrets of the Tribe.

CARA MERTES: Secrets of the Tribe and The Pat Tillman Story, both amazing films. Again, The Pat Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev really focuses on the family and the experience of the family in losing a son, brother, etc., and then broadens it out to talk about the cover-up of the government and really just puts an incredibly intimate face and makes it a family story, but it’s also a national and international story, and does a tremendous job.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan in so-called friendly fire. Secrets of the Tribe, not the tribe of the Yanomamo, which it’s about, but the tribe of anthropologists who investigate them.

CARA MERTES: Yes, right. José Padilha did Bus 174. He’s a really, really amazing filmmaker. And he’s —

AMY GOODMAN: From Brazil.

CARA MERTES: Yes, from Brazil. And he’s come back with a film that really examines what is anthropology and, through this story, begins to get at questions of indigenous rights and indigenous identity.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, if people are interested in getting support from the Sundance Documentary Film Fund and the festival —


AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got five seconds.

CARA MERTES: It’s on the website Sundance.org.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Cara Mertes, so much for joining us, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.

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Natural Gas Industry Attacks Oscar-Nominated Film “Gasland” for Chronicling Devastating Impact of Hydraulic Fracking

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