Sundance Film Festival 2013

Political documentaries make the grade at Sundance, but teacher-student sex affair film fails

Political documentaries make the grade at Sundance, but teacher-student sex affair film fails

PARK CITY, Utah — The first few days of the Sundance Film Festival are characterized by film stars, paparazzi and gridlock traffic. But as the festival continues, actors depart for their next gig, the many gifting suites and nightclubs start winding down, and the town is left, for the most part, with serious moviegoers. 

It's time to focus on catching the gem of a film that could be the next Little Miss Sunshine.

With a drama in mind, I headed to A Teacher by director Hannah Fidell. Shot in Austin, the film explores the psychological free-fall of a teacher who has an affair with a student. The film promises to explore the familiar but forbidden female teacher-male high school student sexual relationship from a different angle, but begins with the two having a quickie in the back seat of her car. We have no idea how the affair started or why.

 The suspense builds as each sex scene is accompanied by menacing and annoying music, so there is no doubt that the teacher will get caught — it’s just a matter of when. 

The first 40 minutes of the film are devoted to little action of the non-sexual type. The suspense builds as each sex scene is accompanied by menacing and annoying music, so there is no doubt that the teacher will get caught — it’s just a matter of when.

I suppose after seeing a similar story in the 2006 film Notes from a Scandal my expectations were too high, as the film, agonizingly long, pointlessly dragged on. Fidell explained afterwards in the Q&A that she wanted to depict the disintegration of the teacher, and not the oft-treated beginning and inevitable end of these relationships.

Actors Lindsay Burdge and Will Brittain as teacher and student made the grade with stellar performances, but the film didn’t.   

After than disappointing classroom experience, I returned to documentaries and found a lot to like.

Inequality for All

In Inequality for All, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, teaches a master class in the consequences of tax and government spending policies dictated by lobbyists for moneyed interests on both the left and the right.

It sounds dense and bland, but filmgoers have compared Reich’s film to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth — only with a focus on the economy rather than the environment. I found Reich’s film more interesting than Gore’s because it transcends party lines.

 In the question-and-answer segment, Reich laughingly commented that his son told him, “Dad, I have heard you talk for 20 years but never understood what you were saying until I saw the film.”  

Inspired by Reich’s book, Aftershock, director Jacob Kornbluth clarifies the complex subject with entertaining charts and profiles of middle income families struggling to achieve the American dream, along with a venture capitalist who earns over $10 to $30 million a year and has a tax rate of 12 percent but advocates a fairer tax policy for the middle class.

The film also provides details on Reich’s background, including his time in the Clinton administration, where he admits “I was a total pain in the ass to Clinton.”

Kornbluth presents Reich as an eloquent, entertaining educator. In the question-and-answer segment, Reich laughingly commented that his son told him, “Dad, I have heard you talk for 20 years but never understood what you were saying until I saw the film.”  

The film has been acquired by The Weinstein Company, so it will make its ways into theater later this year.

Manhunt

Greg Barker’s documentary Manhunt echoes Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, with a different focus and without showing the raid itself.

Although the film opens with President Obama’s announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed, the story begins in the mid-1990s when a number of CIA female analysts known as The Sisterhood became aware of a terrorist group seeking to harm America. At the time they didn’t even know the name of the group but started tracking it.  

 In the Q&A, CIA analysts were asked if they were worried that terrorists could use the information in the film to mount another attack in the United States. 

They are the central figures in the documentary, along with two CIA operations agents who work in the Middle East. The film documents the warnings the CIA gave the government, especially in 2001 prior to 9/11, and how analysts uncovered bin Laden’s courier — the piece of the puzzle that led them to bin Laden. 

The film barely touches on torture or “enhanced interrogation” as it is now known, other than pointing out how the FBI opposed it and the CIA favored it.

In the Q&A, two of the women analysts and operations case officer Marty Martin (who appears in the film and trains CIA sources) were asked if they were worried that terrorists could use the information in the film to mount another attack in the United States. They said that everything in the film is public information that has been known to our enemies for years.

Manhunt will premiere on HBO in May. 

The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers, a documentary by the Israeli director Dror Moreh, focuses on interviews with six retired former heads of Shin Get, the Israeli security agency, who reflect about triumphs and frustrations in the Middle East conflict. They answer questions dispassionately and candidly about the “targeted assassination” of Hamas militants, “moderate physical pressure” applied (sometimes fatally) to Palestinian prisoners, and their failure to prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The interviews are illustrated with archival footage and chilling computer animations of attacks on based on photographs taken at events. This is a dark and depressing film but challenges the conventional wisdom in the search for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival, with a U.S. release scheduled for Feb. 1. It has been nominated for Best Documentary in this year's Oscars.

A Teacher, Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
A Teacher tells the story of a high school teacher who enters into a love affair with her underage student. ATeacherFilm.com
Sundance Film Festival, Inequality for All, January 2013
In Inequality for All, Robert Reich explains the consequences of tax and government spending policies dictated by lobbyists for moneyed interests on both the left and the right. Photo by Svetlana Cvetko
Sundance Film Festival, Manhunt, January 2013
The documentary Manhunt chronicles the CIA’s 20-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Photo courtesy of HBO
Sundance Film Festival, The Gatekeepers, January 2013
Dror Moreh‘s documentary The Gatekeepers interviews six former heads of Shin Bet: Yuval Diskin, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichtner, Yaavoc Peri, Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon. Photo by Avner ShahafIrit Harel