Day 9: Park City, UT: Hard to believe that it’s been this long here! Today I went after some of the more low profile documentaries that I chose due to interest in the subject manner over the buzz they’re receiving. Normally, I’d be after another movie tonight, but it’s rather quiet here. I wasn’t sure why until I saw Col Needham’s Facebook page with the view from the judge’s roost, and it hit me: they don’t screen anything major tonight because the judges are all deliberating to announce the winners of the festival tomorrow. Admittedly, and with no disrespect to the crop that I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve seen too many of the winners, so I’ll plan on using the final 2 days to hit any of the top movies I can see.

 


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How to Dance in Ohio (US)

Director: Alexandra Shiva

High school and college are challenging times to read social cues and deal with all kinds of emotion, but can you imagine those experiences on the Autistic spectrum? This documentary follows 3 women from ages 16-22 who are on the spectrum and go to the same center run by Dr. Amigo to help people learn how to read social cues, and carry on lives that aren’t disrupted by their disability. With all of his patients, he organizes a prom as a sort of culmination and an opportunity to put what they’ve learned at school to the test.

While the film lacks the production value or scope of some of its documentary stablemates here at the festival, it is successful because the story is so touching and the practice is incredibly effective. Thanks in part to a great community but also due to these individual’s determinations to lead prosperous and independent lives, they become people we root for. It’s a tad too long and might not be as strong as it could be, but it remains a very touching piece and demystifies Autism and those whose lives are affected by it. The film has been sold to HBO and so will play there sometime this year.

 


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The Chinese Mayor (China)

Director: Hao Zhou

Writer: Hao Zhou, Zhao Qi

After taking a quick break in the Yarrow lobby and casually sitting next to John Cho for a hot minute, I watched my first film in the World Documentary competition, a category that is generally the least likely to ever be released stateside. One of the most powerful films I saw last year, We Come As Friends, takes a harrowing journey into South Sudan and takes a brilliant experimental approach, yet has only been released in festivals and two countries: France and Austria. So while I could have seen another documentary in the US competition, I chose this as it might be my last opportunity to catch it.

From text at the beginning we learn that Datong, China is the most polluted city due to years of coal production, and now is trying to save face and create a place that is welcoming to visitors. At the forefront of this initiative is the titular mayor, who is attempting to create a city center that is welcoming to tourists and enhances the ancient parts of the city. The trouble is that this vision means displacing over 100,000 people! The filmmakers followed mayor Geng Yanbo for a year and a half to complete this film, and while not every piece of footage hits the mark, we see the conflict firsthand through the view of its lead character. At times he seems to be doing the best thing for the people, but other times he seems to be creating the problem. The question then arises of how much power he actually has: is he calling the shots or is he just a bureaucratic puppet? The film gets started slowly, and relies too much on text for a modern documentary, but still lands a strong finish as the story gets more complex. The story at first seems irrelevant, but ends up representing all that is wrong with what is going on in China today.

 


 

While I may not have seen as many of the buzzed about films here at Sundance, I continue to be thankful for the number of intriguing documentaries that, regardless of their craft, have each given me a greater depth of knowledge. Here’s to two big final days and then a trek home after an incredible festival!