Hot Topics at Sundance

Top 4 Sundance documentaries tackle Scientology, Kurt Cobain and more tricky topics

Top Sundance documentaries tackle Scientology, Cobain & more

Going Clear: Sicentology and the Prison of Belief documentary Sundance January 2015
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Photo via
Sundance Film Festival January 2015 Montage of Heck pic of Kirk Cobain documentary
Montage of Heck, a documentary about Kirk Cobain. Photo via
Sundance January 2015 Prophet's Prey documentary
Prophet's Prey. Photo via
Sundance The Hunting Ground documentary January 2015
The Hunting Ground. Photo via
Going Clear: Sicentology and the Prison of Belief documentary Sundance January 2015
Sundance Film Festival January 2015 Montage of Heck pic of Kirk Cobain documentary
Sundance January 2015 Prophet's Prey documentary
Sundance The Hunting Ground documentary January 2015

The Sundance Film Festival offers a dazzling array of movie stars; some hit-or-miss dramas; and documentaries guaranteed to challenge, entertain, empower and — in some cases — break your heart. My preference is always the documentaries. Dramas can wait. 

Four of the most interesting documentaries include a controversial look at Scientology from an Academy Award winner, an analysis of the horrifying epidemic of rapes on college campuses across the country, an in-depth look at the polygamous leader who sexually abused and married dozens of young girls (90 wives at last count), and an intimate study of a legendary rock star who died way too soon. 

Empower: Documentary on campus rape epidemic could spur change                                                              

You know that a movie is going to be intense when a Sundance programmer announces that a mental health professional will be available afterward. That was the case with The Hunting Ground, a harrowing documentary that provides a shocking and brutal exposé of the epidemic of rapes at institutions of higher learning across the nation.

 The stories in Hunting Ground are interwoven with shocking statistics: One out of five women will be raped or sexually attacked during her college years. 

The documentary opens with footage of women joyfully reacting to the news of being accepted to the college of their dreams while “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the background. Afterward, the same women share their individual accounts of being raped and their schools’ attempts to discount, ignore, blame or cover up the alleged crimes.

The stories are interwoven with shocking statistics: One out of five women will be raped or sexually attacked during her college years. Of the small percentage of the criminals who are prosecuted, many punishments are meager — in some cases as little as a $25 fine or one day’s suspension. 

The Hunting Ground pulls no punches. Along with institutions such as Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, it takes on both the fraternity system and money-infested college sports programs, both of which the filmmakers believe foster a culture of rape.

Faculty members of colleges are reluctant to speak up for fear of being labeled a troublemaker and denied tenure. Colleges are loath to admit the problems for fear of losing both donations and discouraging applicants. None of the 35 institutions contacted by the producers would comment.

For the first time, the woman who alleges that she was raped by star Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston talks on camera about her ordeal. Erica Kinsman shares her story of how Tallahassee, Florida police declined to investigate the case for nearly two years.

Kinsman was threatened and bullied by Florida State fans and eventually left the school. While police and university officials ultimately decided not to prosecute the case, it’s hard to listen to Kinsman’s account and not be emotionally impacted. 

Although this powerful, sobering documentary does not have a happy ending (yet), there are real heroes. The two former students at the University of North Carolina who were raped and ignored by the system came up with the novel idea to file suit against the university for violating Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools that receive federal funding. Students at other universities have followed suit, leading to the U.S. Department of Education’s launching an investigation of 95 schools.  

The Hunting Ground received a standing ovation with many in the audience in tears. In the question-and-answer session, filmmaker Amy Ziering encouraged the audience to demand their alma maters change their policies. “If your school tells you there are no incidences of rape, they are not telling you the truth. It is statistically impossible,” she said.

The film will be released in theaters on March 20 and air on CNN later this year. 

Enrage: Documentary on Scientology raises questions

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, one of the most sought-after tickets of the festival, premiered amid heightened security, prompted by the specter of organized protests that never materialized.

 Going Clear relies on interviews with ex-Scientologists, extensive film footage of founder L. Ron Hubbard, and revelations about members Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning Austin author Lawrence Wright, Alex Gibney’s scathing documentary relies on interviews with ex-Scientologists, extensive film footage of founder L. Ron Hubbard as well as what interests casual observers most about Scientology — revelations about members Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

The first half of the documentary explores the history of Scientology, its beliefs (extraterrestrials, working to specific stages of enlightenment) and Hubbard. The second half offers revelations that the church plotted the breakup of Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman, tapped her phone and turned their children against her in order to position him as the poster boy of Scientology.

Cruise comes across as pretty darn strange, but that won’t surprise those who saw him come unglued with Matt Lauer or jump on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.   

Although much of the information has been in the public domain for some time, it was still shocking to see all of the damaging information about Scientology’s tax-exempt status, as well as its physical and emotional abuse of its members laid out as masterfully. (Gibney has a long string of powerful documentaries, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary.)

The film received a standing ovation with follow-up questions from indignant audience members who wondered why the government hasn’t put a stop to Scientology. Gibney explained that even if the government did, most would not leave — it is a prison of belief.  

HBO plans to screen Going Clear on March 16 after it is shown in theaters in Los Angeles and New York for a week to qualify for Academy Award consideration next year.

Broken Hearted: Documentary on jailed polygamist is unsettling

Award-winning writer Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air) and documentarian Amy Berg created Prophet’s Prey, a disturbing documentary about Warren Jeffs, the polygamous leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) who sexually abused and married dozens of young girls (90 wives at last count).

 Prophet’s Prey is a creepier, more unsettling film than Going Clear in part because of its leader, whose otherworldly hypnotic voice narrates part of the film.   

Like Going Clear, the documentary profiles its leader, explains his religion and interviews former members to detail the abuse. And like Scientology, Jeffs has used intimidation and abuse to keep members in line.

But Prophet’s Prey is a creepier, more unsettling film than Going Clear in part because of its leader whose otherworldly hypnotic voice narrates part of the film. His voice coupled with the haunting church music in the background is downright scary.   

Jeffs was on the run for three years before being apprehended in Texas and sentenced to life in prison. Part of his conviction was based on a taped recording of his raping a 12-year-old, which was included in the film.

We also hear from parents whose daughter was kidnapped within 24 hours after she returned to them. She has disappeared and the family says that despite their resources, they will probably not see her again. The parents along with his son and other former members of the church received a standing ovation and hugs afterward. 

Prophet’s Prey was especially heartbreaking because there is no petition to sign, no cause to contribute to. Perhaps the lesson, as with Scientology, is about power, authority figures and misguided faith. Krakauer and Berg point out that Jeffs still controls his 10,000 followers from prison, which is even more unsettling than the film itself.

This compelling film will be shown on Showtime later this year.

Entertain: Documentary on Nirvana’s magnetic lead singer is a treat

I figured that Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was sure to entertain, though watching this documentary at 9 in the morning, with music blaring so loud that some in the audience had to cover their ears, was somewhat jarring.

The glaring absence of Nirvana band member Dave Grohl is a significant flaw in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck 

Pulled together from old VHS tapes, home movies, notebooks and sketches, interspersed with interviews with his family and Courtney Love, this authorized documentary is an intimate film that fans of Nirvana will love. The title was taken from a mixtape director Brett Morgen discovered while poring through old documents. It’s a treat to listen to the music and see all the notebooks that were part diary, part doodle book. 

Cobain comes across differently from how he has been portrayed in the media. He seems kind, introverted, guarded and deeply unhappy, even as a preteen. And as drugged as he appeared in the last 30 minutes of film, he adored his daughter Frances Bean (an executive producer of the documentary), and the chemistry between him and wife Courtney Love was palpable.

My favorite moment was Cobain’s singing an acoustic version of The Beatles song “And I Love Her.” But his suicide and the reasons for it are only barely touched on.

And the glaring absence of Nirvana band member Dave Grohl is a significant flaw. Director Brett Morgen told the audience that Grohl was not in the documentary due to scheduling issues, which seems strange because it was put together over an eight-year period. Morgen said that Grohl sat for an interview earlier this year — too late to be included in the documentary, but it could be inserted in later versions.

HBO will show this definitive documentary later this year.