For one week of the year, the genre that spends most of its time in the cultural margins moves to center stage. The Sundance Film Festival, which continues until this Saturday, places documentaries on a white hot pedestal, so I asked director Marshall Curry, whose POV film If a Tree Falls is premiering there, to give us a taste of his experience in Park City.

But I’ll start with mentioning that this year had a typically strong start with early announcements that HBO had picked up Project Nim, a documentary about a chimpanzee that was the subject of 1970s sign language experiments. Directed by James Marsh, in his doc follow-up to Man on Wire, Nim sounds like one of the most promising documentaries of 2011. Also in the news: Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was acquired by Sony Pictures on the first day. In the film, Spurlock examines the world of product placement, marketing and advertising, by making a film entirely financed by product placement, marketing and advertising. (I can hear your groans already.) In fact, it was just announced that the film had won a new primary sponsor and so would be renamed Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Wink wink, nudge, nudge. Spurlock either has his finger on the pulse or he’s really going to annoy a lot of people with this have-it-both-ways critique.

But the biggest announcement of all came the day before the festival began: the Ford Foundation announced a new five-year, $50 million dollar initiative to help documentary filmmakers. Some of that money will flow through the Sundance Institute. (I can hear you cheering now.)

As mentioned earlier, there are even more docs at the festival with the new Documentary Premieres section for veteran directors. One in that number will be POV’s very own Granito, by Pamela Yates. And, also flickering on Park City screens will be the Curry film.

I saw If a Tree Falls because it’s subject matter is of great interest to me. It’s about the Earth Liberation Front, focusing on the case of Daniel MacGowan, a pretty innocuous-seeming dude who got caught up in the movement, and is now serving hard time for being a terrorist. The film provides a comprehensive look at what happened with ELF, from start to finish. I had always wondered what had happened to those guys, having once been an aspiring leftist radical, who never went all the way. Well, MacGowan did, and the film is deeply moving in its portrait of him.

There have been two screenings of the film so far, and Curry says that it’s been “really fun.” He got to spend some time with Cory Booker, the subject of his documentary, Street Fight (POV 2005), and it sounds like he’s having a ball.

Can you tell me about one great conversation or Q & A that’s happened at the fest so far?

I think that audiences have been most surprised by the complexity of the story and the film. A lot of people have told Sam Cullman (cinematographer /co-director) and me that they expected it to be polemical — blasting away at one side or the other. But important stories are rarely black and white and this one has a lot of gray. And even though that sometimes unsettles people, at the Q & A’s they have overwhelmingly told us that they appreciate the shifting nuance.

You’ll be airing the film on POV, so what sort of business are you doing there?

We’re talking with theatrical distributors and international television buyers. But also just enjoying spending time with other filmmakers and forgetting about business.

Are you looking for theatrical distribution?

We’ll definitely do a theatrical release of the film — I think there’s a large targetable market for this film. But whether we do it with a traditional distributor or hold on to the DVD/VOD/foreign rights and control the theatrical release ourselves is still something we need to decide.

How’s the theatrical sales environment for docs this year?

It’s hard to say — things are still early and our sample size (one film) isn’t exactly statically significant.

Have you been in communication with Daniel MacGowan about what’s happening at Sundance? Do you know what he feels about the movie being there?

I haven’t been in touch with him but his wife actually came to the screenings. I think she feels like it is a fair telling of their story and is happy for people to be learning about it. But Daniel is in prison so he won’t be able to see the film until it is on POV.

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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