On Set: Virtual Sundance Film Festival Once Again Features the Best in Documentary Filmmaking

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts continues his coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, discussing the U.S. Documentary competition.
"The Exiles," a meta documentary about filmmaking, took home the Grand Jury Prize this year. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

by | Feb 11, 2022 | Film & TV

As I mentioned last week, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was forced to make the late-stage decision to move the entire viewer experience back onto the digital platform they created last year. I know from speaking to a few staffers that this was a big effort, harder than 2021 in some ways, and I congratulate them for pulling it off again. I was able to watch all ten movies in the U.S. Documentary category from the comfort of my couch and, I’ll be honest, I don’t miss the crowded theater scene of Park City all that much.

Much like the World Cinema submissions, the U.S. Documentary section of Sundance is a place of quiet prestige. Not every title stays on the tip of every tongue once the screenings are over, but this category consistently boasts some of the finest filmmaking the Festival has to offer. The 2020 roster alone included “Be Water,” “Coded Bias,” “Crip Camp,” “Boys State” and “Dick Johnson is Dead.” It was a murderers’ row of non-fiction brilliance. 2021 had Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” which was just nominated for an Oscar. The 2022 class featured stories of science, rehabilitation, reconciliation, wrongful imprisonment, social media and the politics of personal sovereignty. As a collection, these films were American in name only, providing glimpses into worlds and cultures very distinct from our own.

The Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary category went to “The Exiles.” Directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus, this film is a meta-documentary about a famous documentarian we should all know more about. Christine Choy is among the most iconoclastic directors in the industry. “The Exiles” centers on a film she shot in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square massacre but never finished. Her contemporary re-connection with three of the banished subjects from that project is both moving and sobering. But it is Choy’s acerbic, no-nonsense personality that makes “The Exiles” hum like a hornet’s nest. She is a tiny titan, and this film about her displaced countrymen is a very deserving choice for the top Festival honor.

Had it been up to me, I would have chosen “Navalny” as the winner of the section. I was far from alone in my enthusiasm for this hero’s journey portrait of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s greatest internal enemy. “Navalny” won the Festival Favorite Award based on audience votes and I believe it will continue to make a big impression on viewers thanks to HBOMax. The third-act surprises are mind-blowing and the pacing from start to finish keeps the too-good-to-be-true nature of this drama taut and thrilling.

Also excellent was “Free Chol Soo Lee,” a film about a 1973 gang murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When a young Korean immigrant was wrongly convicted for the crime, a pan-Asian American activist movement formed and eventually helped get Chol Soo Lee off death row and free after ten years behind bars. What happens to him, and everyone else, after that release is the true soul of the film. It’s rock-solid storytelling, told with notable grace and patience.

Finally, I was really taken with Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love.” This is one of the more non-traditional movies of the lot. It features slightly uncanny narration by Miranda July, but also some incredible archival footage of, and by, the husband-and-wife team of volcano scientists at the heart of the narrative. The imagery of the cataclysmic eruptions that frame their story simply defies description. These two spent their lives at the edge of human possibility, and this lovingly stylistic tribute does them a great honor.

The 2022 U.S. Documentary field was, like its Dramatic counterpart, very strong. At least three of these films should get an Oscar nomination next year. It’s wonderful to see the quality of this important festival still so high after two years of disruption. Bravo, Sundance. See you in 2023.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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