Sundance 2013 Preview: U.S. Documentaries Competition

Sundance takes great pride in its documentary competition sections – as well it should. The film festival has discovered quite a few award winners over the years.

Documentaries don’t often get a lot of recognition – except at festivals like Sundance, where people go crazy for them. One or two docs always stand out and become hot-ticket items as the festival wears on. ‘Catfish‘ was one such documentary. Once word got out about how sneaky good it was, everyone wanted to see it.

Last year saw some great competition. Timely subjects were tackled in ‘Chasing Ice’ and ‘The Invisible War’. Not too long ago, ‘The Cove’ emerged from the festival and went on to win an Oscar. There’s always interesting stuff to look out for in here.

‘99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film’

Directors: Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read and Nina Kristic

Synopsis: The Occupy movement erupted in September 2011 and propelled economic inequality into the spotlight. In an unprecedented collaboration, filmmakers across America tell its story, digging into big picture issues while organizers, analysts, participants and critics reveal how it happened and why.

Thoughts: An Occupy Movement documentary was inevitable, and Sundance is the perfect place to show it, because there will be a lot of people there sympathetic to the cause. Me? I’m not too interested by it. There seems to be much more interesting documentary subjects in the following films.

‘After Tiller’

Directors: Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

Synopsis: Since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in 2009, only four doctors in the country provide late-term abortions. With unprecedented access, ‘After Tiller’ goes inside the lives of these physicians working at the center of the storm.

Thoughts: This is going to be a hot-button doc, but that’s what the festival specializes in. Going inside the lives of the remaining doctors who do what Tiller did before his death seems risky. It’ll be intriguing to see what path this doc takes with its subjects.

‘American Promise’

Directors: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson

Synopsis: This intimate documentary follows the 12-year journey of two African-American families pursuing the promise of opportunity through the education of their sons.

Thoughts: This one’s going to be a heart-breaker, I just know it. I’ll be sitting in the theater trying to hide my tears from the cynical press corps.


Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Synopsis: Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. ‘Blackfish’ shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.

Thoughts: This may end up being ‘The Cove’ of Sundance 2013. I have an affinity for sea life and abhor the imprisonment of these types of animals. That’s just my opinion, but that’s also the same reason I’ll see this film.

‘Blood Brother’

Director: Steve Hoover

Synopsis: Rocky went to India as a disillusioned tourist. When he met a group of children with HIV, he decided to stay. He never could have imagined the obstacles he would face, or the love he would find.

Thoughts: I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on this one. The synopsis doesn’t jump out at me as a subject I’d be interested in. However, I’ve seen plenty of documentaries at Sundance that I wasn’t necessarily interested in, but soon drew me in unexpectedly.

‘Citizen Koch’

Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

Synopsis: Wisconsin – birthplace of the Republican Party, government unions, “cheeseheads” and Paul Ryan – becomes a test market in the campaign to buy Democracy and ground zero in the battle for the future of the GOP.

Thoughts: More politics. I’m not going to lie to you. When you come to Sundance, it’s like a sea of blue has been transported into this solidly red state. A lot of these politically themed docs show up here every year. They usually take a Liberal stance. This one interests me, simply because I’m fascinated by this type of stuff.

‘Cutie and the Boxer’

Director: Zachary Heinzerling

Synopsis: This candid New York love story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to shed her role as her overbearing husband’s assistant, Noriko finds an identity of her own.

Thoughts: This is something I’d never, ever be interested in. However, I will keep an ear out for word-of-mouth on this one. The docs that I have no interest in usually end up being the best at the festival.

‘Dirty Wars’

Director: Richard Rowley

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill chases down the truth behind America’s covert wars.

Thoughts: Now this one has my attention. I love reading about clandestine activities in America’s past. This seems like it’s right up my alley.

‘Gideon’s Army’

Director: Dawn Porter

Synopsis: ‘Gideon’s Army’ follows three young, committed Public Defenders who are dedicated to working for the people society would rather forget. Long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads are so common that even the most committed often give up.

Thoughts: I have no interest in lawyers or their jobs, but for some reason, I’m drawn to this doc. Being a public defender must be an excruciatingly thankless job. They deserve some time in the spotlight.

‘God Loves Uganda’

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Synopsis: A powerful exploration of the evangelical campaign to infuse African culture with values imported from America’s Christian Right. The film follows American and Ugandan religious leaders fighting “sexual immorality” and missionaries trying to convince Ugandans to follow biblical law.

Thoughts: Another Africa-centric subject. I don’t see myself going to see this one.

‘The Good Life’

Directors: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine

Synopsis: Dr. Leslie Gordon and Dr. Scott Berns fight to save their only son from Progeria, a rare and fatal disease for which there is no treatment or cure. In less than a decade, their work has led to significant advances.

Thoughts: My wife is always watching TV specials on TLC about people with Progeria, which is a rapid-aging disease. If she comes up to visit me at the festival, I’ll probably take her to this. Otherwise, I’m not going.

‘Inequality for All’

Director: Jacob Kornbluth

Synopsis: In this timely and entertaining documentary, noted economic-policy expert Robert Reich distills the topic of widening income inequality and addresses the question of what effects this increasing gap has on our economy and our democracy.

Thoughts: Another apropos subject. The economy and the gap between the ultra-rich and the poor will always be hot topics. This one will probably be worth checking out.


Director: Greg Barker

Synopsis: This espionage tale goes inside the CIA’s long conflict against Al Qaeda, as revealed by the remarkable women and men whose secret war against Osama bin Laden started nearly a decade before most of us even knew his name.

Thoughts: Just in time for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, here’s a doc about the manhunt for bin Laden and how it culminated with his death. Along the lines of the ‘Dirty Wars’ doc, this is a subject I have great interest in.

‘Narco Cultura’

Director: Shaul Schwarz

Synopsis: An examination of Mexican drug cartels’ influence in pop culture on both sides of the border as experienced by an L.A. narcocorrido singer dreaming of stardom and a Juarez crime scene investigator on the front line of Mexico’s Drug War.

Thoughts: The Mexican drug cartels have made the news like crazy in the past couple of years. Their ruthlessness will no doubt be shown here. I have no idea what’s in the movie, but I can already say that I’m sure this one won’t be for the squeamish.

‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’

Director: Morgan Neville

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead – until now.

Thoughts: I really want to see this one. I love it when specific subjects are seemingly picked from the air. I would have never have given backup singers a second thought before this.

‘Valentine Road’

Director: Marta Cunningham

Synopsis: In 2008, eighth-grader Brandon McInerney shot classmate Larry King at point blank range. Unraveling this tragedy from point of impact, the film reveals the heartbreaking circumstances that led to the shocking crime as well as its startling aftermath.

Thoughts: This is sure to be a tear-filled, intimate look into the lives of people affected by a tragedy. While these types of docs make me uncomfortable, this will likely be worth seeing based on its synopsis.

Leading up to Sundance we’ll continue to post articles like this that will help you get excited about and understand the movies that will be shown at the festival in early 2013. What are some of the movies on this list you’re excited about? Please let us know about it in the comments.

[Note: The Sundance Film Festival is really the only time I ever use Twitter. Follow me at @AaronPeck to keep up to date with all my movie watching and line waiting when the festival arrives.]


  1. JM

    I love the Koch brothers and my parents are protest monkeys so ‘Citizen Koch’ might be totally netflixable depending on the craftsmanship.

    ‘Dirty Wars’ and ‘Narco Cultura’ are the only other synopses I’d risk two hours on.

    Where are the original concepts? 99% of these sound like parodies of Sundance docs.

    ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ would be intriguing, if it was a french animated film.

  2. William Henley

    Most of these sounds like the movie of the week on HDNet (I don’t think I will ever get used to calling it AXSTV, what a stupid name). Most of these hold no intrest to me. However, I seem to like the documentaries that most people dont seem to like.

    The ones that hold intrest to me are:
    Blood Brothers
    God Loves Uganda
    Twenty Feet from Stardom

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