Sundance always finds such wonderfully powerful documentaries, and this year was no exception. There was considerable buzz about many of the docs showing, so I wasn’t surprised when SONITA, a film about a female rapper in conservative Iran, won the World Cinema Jury Prize and Weiner, the unprecedented inside look Anthony Weiner’s fall from grace, won the U.S Grand Jury Prize. It’s exciting that many of these films will be released out into the world soon. Here are a few reviews of documentary films that I was lucky enough to have seen while at Sundance this year.

Maya Angelou Still I Rise

Maya Angelou: Still I Rise 

Maya Angelou’s sonorous voice spoke a poetic prose that has inspired millions of people around the world.  The new documentary, Maya Angelou: Still I Rise, co-directed by Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, is a marvelous rendition of her long history, diving deep into her difficult and complicated life story. I remember watching her read a poem at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993 and thinking, what a beautiful piece of writing, but I had no idea how important she was. She is a character of legendary proportions, her fierce intelligence and graceful poetry, a true national treasure. Growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, during the Jim Crow era, Maya suffered abuse and was raped at the age of seven. She did not speak for five years, but instead stayed inside her head and read every book she could find. Poetry brought back her voice and she learned how to sing by going to church almost every night. She began her career in theater as a singer and a dancer, and later became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, spending time with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. To hear Maya describe her process of writing her classic autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is inspiring. To hear her tell the story of how she convinced Tupac to stop cursing is fascinating. This film gracefully weaves the tapestry of her life into an irresistible story that should not be missed.

Under The Gun
Under The Gun

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The number of gun shops in the U.S. is greater than the number of McDonald’s restaurants and Starbucks stores…combined. Wow! Who knew? This is just one of many important facts that Director Stephanie Soechtig brings to Under The Gun, an enlightening examination of the national debate on gun control in America following several families that have been impacted by loss of a loved one to gun violence. Ms. Soechtig constructs a clear investigation into how the gun laws actually work in this country. She includes detailed and informative explanations of the gun show loophole and the straw purchase, and shows how the NRA and the gun lobby use fear and intimidation to shut down the government’s ability to act.  The film ends with a ray of hope, documenting the success of Initiative 594, the Washington state law passed to require universal background checks.  I wish I had seen this film before I had that argument with my father-in-law at Christmas.

kate plays christine

Kate Plays Christine 

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Coincidentally, two films at Sundance this year explore reporter Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974. While Antonio Campos’s exquisitely executed narrative drama lays out a clear path for Rebecca Hall to express Ms. Chubbuck’s anguish, Robert Greene’s brilliant documentary /psychological thriller Kate Plays Christine takes a completely experimental and visionary look into the Chubbuck legend. The film follows indie art house queen Kate Lyn Sheil through her creative process as she prepares to play a fictionalized Christine Chubbuck. Kate arrives in Sarasota, Florida, and dives into an obsessive exploration of the mysteries surrounding Christine’s suicide. Not only do her methodical preparations lead Kate through a disturbing meditation of what drove Chubbuck to suicide, she is forced to grapple with her own insecurities about the nature of her identity. 

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