One of the biggest secrets about the Sundance Film Festival is the quality of its documentaries — and though Robert Redford and crew try hard to highlight the exquisite non-fiction section of their yearly independent library, the doc categories are often overshadowed by the bigger, more accessible mainstream releases. But if you think about it, Sundance is the place for docs. It has been home to films such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, Eugene Jarecki’s insightful WWII doc Why We Fight and my own personal best film of 2008, James Marsh’s Man on Wire, among others. So as I continue to close down my coverage of the 2009 festival, I’ve saved three awesome docs for the end. Here we will take a look at two creative activists, a man on a mission for a smaller carbon footprint and the wacky story of the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.
The Yes Men Fix the World
Be still my liberal activist heart — who knew that such an engaging and fun documentary could be formed around fighting corporate greed and government corruption. For those not familiar with the “Yes Men,” they are a group of guys who practice what they call “identity correction” by pretending to be powerful people and spokespersons for prominent organizations. They create and maintain fake websites similar to ones they want to spoof, and then they accept invitations received on their websites to appear at conferences, symposia, and TV shows. In 2003 they released a DVD documentary called The Yes Men which was received with a generous mix of positive and negative sentiments from the public, and have brought their follow-up film The Yes Men Fix the World to Sundance to once again stir up some controversy. In the film, the dynamic duo of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno take on an assortment of causes, everything from the Dow Chemical company’s failure to properly deal with a 20-year old tragic factory explosion in Africa that left a city in ruins, to impersonating a director of H.U.D. to help solve the housing crisis of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to a “Special Edition” of The New York Times dated July 4, 2009 that featured articles about things that should be happening in the world.
In their creative and energetic documentary, these two Yes Men take on ‘the man’ in a very big way. Initially their antics can be seen as adolescent pranks, but as the film wears on and the layers are peeled back we discover that Bichlbaum and Bonanno are very earnest activists, hell-bent on changing reality — even if its momentary — and exposing some of the world’s biggest criminals. And even though they are extreme in their tactics and deliver — even going as far as to liken free marketeers to the Jonestown Cult — their intentions are noble and for the most part, their film provides important commentary that is irrefutably relevant to our nation’s current economic situation. Delivered with a heroic swagger and perpetrated by two men, each with serious cajones, The Yes Men Fix the World is a call to activism, a further testament to the change the world needs and, overall, a well-crafted and entertaining film. Unless you are one of those uptight conservative weenies that thinks that our market system will just ‘fix itself,’ you should find a lot to applaud in this energetic and witty doc.
No Impact Man
Here’s another guy you might have heard of before. His name is Colin Beavan, and he is a non-fiction writer and blogger from New York City who is noted for recording the attempts of he and his family to live a zero impact lifestyle for one whole year. The goal was to live without many of the common comforts of an American life — electricity, processed foods, paper products, motorized transportation — to see how low he could go with his impact on the environment. Joined by his wife Michelle Conlin, a writer for Business Week, and their young daughter, Beavan took to riding his bike, composting his trash and only eating foods grown within a local radius.
An interesting concept for a social experiment (and subsequently, an interesting documentary concept), the story of Beavan and his family is definitely an engaging one. His wife Michelle though, is certainly the most interesting subject of the entire documentary as she struggles with having to give up her consumptive lifestyle. No more expensive handbags, no more riding around in cars and most especially, no more Starbucks coffee. The most engaging part of it all is watching Michelle’s struggles with wanting to cheat on the experiment and her ultimate acceptance and lessons learned from the ordeal. The only problem that we run into is that the film runs a little slow. Directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, neither of whom are strangers to making solid docs, do a good job of capturing the more engaging moments from a year’s worth of experience, but falter a bit in the creation of a complete narrative. Getting in the way is the focus on the countless media appearances that cause a rash of criticism about the integrity of the project. Is Beavan’s work hypocritical or visionary? Is he self-promoting or is he making an earnest attempt to help people see the ways that we can all minimize our impact on the environment? The answers to these questions seem to be left on the table as the documentary roles to a close, leaving us to formulate our own answers. Either way, we cannot deny that the doc itself is a very intimate and engaging look at some of those ‘changes’ we often talk about, but never muster the courage to enact in our own lives. If anything, No Impact Man is an effective, though extreme, example of what it really means to be conscious of our environment.
We Live in Public
It seems fit that the last documentary I will be reviewing form this year’s festival is the one that hit closest to home. Like many of you, I make my home on the internet. My thoughts about movies and entertainment make up my day job, I’ve broadcasted myself audibly and visually across this digital wasteland and for the most part, I’ve aired quite a lot of myself in the process. To me, the thought of exposing almost every detail of ones life to thousands of people via the internet isn’t at all foreign — it is more or less a common element of today’s web-driven society. But back in the 90s this wasn’t the case — at least to everyone but a man named Josh Harris. Often called the “Warhol of the Web,” Harris founded Pseudo.com, the first Internet television network and went on to create his own voyeuristic vision of the future, an underground bunker in NYC where 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days over the millennium. Through this and other experiments — including the six month long 24/7 broadcasting of his home life with his girlfriend that led to his mental breakdown — Harris proved that in the not-so-distant future we would all willingly trade our personal privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire.
And as it turns out — and as award-winning director Ondi Timoner’s colorful documentary shows us — he was right. Years before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter made our lives instantly accessible to the world, Josh Harris was testing the theory — a theory that would ultimately drive him and his subjects mad. Combining archival footage from Harris’ many projects with interviews with dot-com entrepreneurs such as Jason Calacanis, Timoner weaves together Harris’ thread of antics in an engaging and upbeat way. It’s impressive, to say the least, seeing as the doc spans such a great deal of Harris’ life, to imagine what a task it must have been for Timoner and team to chip away at the countless hours of footage to create such a delightfully coherent narrative. The result is a documentary that is not only accessible to those not familiar with Harris’ life, but one that also hits very close to home for a new generation of web denizens. If you are reading this review, then you should absolutely see this documentary. It might have you taking a second look at how you live your own virtual life.