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From the Archives: A Roundup of Politically Charged Sundance Films

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Eugene Jarecki’s Reagan

Nate von Zumwalt

As America hovers in election limbo over the next 48 hours, we offer you a brief respite from the conjecture with a slate of politically charged films from the annals of the Sundance Film Festival. Give your bit-chomping, hand-wringing ways a rest and check out these titles.

8: The Mormon Proposition
Directors: Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet

Cowan and Greenstreet not only make for a potent-sounding law firm, but also a socially and politically biting documentary. 8: The Mormon Proposition is an explicit attack on the Mormon Church and its sponsorship of California’s Proposition 8 during the 2008 elections, an amendment that proposed “only marriage between a man and woman is valid or recognized in California.” Despite the patent paradox of a “Constitutional Amendment” that endeavors to “Eliminate Rights…,” Prop 8 passed with 52% voter approval. In response, Cowan and Greenstreet offer a window into an emotionally jarring debate that leaves one to wonder when man’s fervent creed became a license for discrimination.

Director: Eugene Jarecki

Eugene Jarecki could single-handedly flesh out a “politically-charged films list” with his vast oeuvre. Reagan, while not his most prized documentary, is arguably his most freely enjoyable. Jarecki’s 2011 Sundance selection refrains from the zingers and low-blows that typify the political doc genre and instead examines Ronald Reagan the man, and his fiercely debated legacy—from his days as a B-list Hollywood actor to becoming the face of the modern Conservative movement.

Escape Fire
Director: Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke

As millions of Americans descend further into a media fray wrought with glaring sensationalism and compulsive hyperbole surrounding the 2012 Presidential Election, the directing duo of Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke offer an unparalleled, unflinching, and—quite frankly—unflattering look at one of the most pressing contemporary American issues: our broken healthcare system.

Heineman and Froemke’s Escape Fire manages to transcend party lines in its unwavering pursuit of a veracious answer to an enduring question: What’s wrong with our healthcare system and how do we fix it?

Director: Rory Kennedy

The youngest of Bobby Kennedy’s children, Rory Kenndy’s Ethel is a wide-ranging retrospective look at the life of 84-year-old Ethel Kennedy, spanning her upbringing in the staunchly conservative Skakel family and her eventual marriage to the Democratic senator. With a remarkable aptitude for storytelling, and equipped with unrivaled access to private family archives, Rory manages to fashion five days of interviews with her mother and siblings into a fascinating account of what it was like growing up in the Kennedy household.

The Times of Harvey Milk
Director: Rob Epstein

An emotionally stirring film funded by an immense grassroots effort, The Times of Harvey Milk honors the legacy of the fallen gay activist and first openly gay elected official in United States history. In true “indie” spirit, more than 850 individual contributions provided for the better part of the film’s funding. Director Rob Epstein combines archival footage and personal interviews in this poignant depiction of the political ascension and senseless assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.

The film earned the Sundance Film Festival’s first documentary award in 1985 and took home an Academy Award later that year.

Honorable Mentions

Thank You For Smoking, directed by Jason Reitman

An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim

The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki

Why We Fight, directed by Eugene Jarecki

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

In Memoriam: Diane Weyermann (1955–2021)

A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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