Hey, so enough talk about 2007, the year that was (or wasn’t, depending on your perspective): The 2008 documentary season really begins this week with the Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off yesterday. With no less than forty documentaries in the fest this year, it’s a documentary-lovers dream. The only danger is to overindulge. I’m used to catching about 20 or so movies during the festival, but this will be the first time I am going to almost exclusively be watching docs. Not sure how that’s going to feel, but I’ll make sure to bring a lot of Kleenex. That said, when I consider the Sundance films I’ve already lined up to see, there’s an impressively diverse range of subject matter, filmmakers, and tone. Here are just a few of the documentaries that I’ve got on my radar:

American Teen
Director Nanette Burstein, who co-directed 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture with Brett Morgen, returns with this in-depth look at four Indiana high school kids. Apparently, this really gets deep into the life of teens, and I am willing to bet Burstein’s film is going to be a much-needed antidote to the reality TV programming that gives us a very warped (and artificial) vision of kids today.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
It’s hard to ignore a doc about Thompson, the outrageous drug-addled journalist. It’s even more difficult when you see that it’s directed by Alex Gibney, the man responsible for the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and this month’s Taxi to the Dark Side. That’s three films about three very different subjects. This film merges interviews, film clips, and readings and, like most things Gonzo, should be quite a ride.

Made in America
Stacy Peralta, the director who brought us skaters with Dogtown and Z-Boys and surfers with Riding Giants, now delivers a first-person look at Los Angeles gang life among the Crips and Bloods. Good for Peralta, getting himself out of his own groove. Let’s see what he can do when the boys-with-toys crew gets serious.

Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)*

Still from Nerakhoon

This film about a family that emigrates from Laos took director Ellen Kuras 23 years to finish. Kuras, who co-directed with Thavisouk Phrasavath, is better known in the industry for being not only one of the best cinematographers in the film biz (I’ve watched her at work on Michel Gondry‘s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Rebecca Miller‘s Personal Velocity; she has also shot several of Spike Lee‘s movies as well as Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, another dramatic film premiering at this year’s festival), but also one of the few women in the field. Kuras is smart, she’s got an amazing visual sense, and she has obviously dedicated herself to this project. This should be a doozy.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life*
This is one of the two films that I’ve already seen. I’m hardly unbiased, having been in director Steven Sebring‘s employ for a freelance gig, but I don’t mind shilling for the man because I can honestly say that it’s a fantastic film. To quote something I wrote about the film when it was shown last year at Cannes, the film, “jumps the stage and lets Smith grab the viewer by the scruff of the neck, so she can show us what she sees.” I mean, here’s a woman who has been there with the Beats, the punks and today’s alternative rock scene. And she tells it — and spits it — like she sees it. Paired with Sebring’s strong visual eye (he’s a successful fashion photographer), the film rocks.

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?
As if the title alone wasn’t enough to grab me, then the idea of director Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) taking a humorous look into Arab-Westerner differences while traveling through the Middle East has me chomping at the bit. Will this be the confirmation that Spurlock is a top documentarian of our time — or just a one-hit wonder? Will he find Bin Laden? I am pretty sure I know the answer to both of these questions, but I’d better reserve judgment until I see the film.

Wow. I laughed. I cried. This is the other Sundance doc that I’ve already seen. Watching this choir of Massachusetts senior citizens sing covers of contemporary songs by bands like Coldplay and Sonic Youth,was a heartfelt reminder of the immense power of documentary film. Director Stephen Walker makes us take a real look at the elderly and dying. I was so moved. I look forward to meeting Walker and some of the cast at a brunch that distributor Fox Searchlight is hosting.

Admittedly, the films above are among the higher-profile docs, and there are many others that will be compelling. One of the things that’s so exciting about Sundance is finding that off-the-radar doc that just blows your socks off. The films I’m already jazzed to see include:

Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed On the Mountains
I’m a sucker for survival stories, and it should be interesting to see how this differs from the fictional Alive (starring Ethan Hawke), the story of the rugby team survivors of a 1974 Andes plane crash.

Women of Brukman (Les Femmes de la Brukman)
This film is about some Argentinean workers who take over a Buenos Aires men’s clothing factory. I heard from a reliable source that this will be pretty eye-opening.

The Greatest Silence: Rape In the Congo
Considering how poorly recent Africa-related docs have fared at the box office, I’m curious to see if Lisa Jackson‘s film can break the mold and bring attention to this story of rape survivors in remote villages.

Dinner With the President
I am hearing from festival reps that filmmakers Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan have an incredible story to tell in this intimate look at Pakistani culture, including a surprise sit-down dinner with President Musharraf. I’d like to see if the filmmakers can bring us a new wrinkle of understanding of this turbulent country.

I’ll be checking out as many of these films as I can and talking with many of the directors. And, if I can survive the sleep deprivation, the overcrowded shuttle buses, the high altitude and the better-than-thou attitudes, I hope to file some more posts here at Doc Soup over the next week.
* These films will air on POV in 2008/2009.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen