The Summit (Nick Ryan)

This is the second segment of my conversation with Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmers, David Courier and Caroline Libresco. Go to Part One »

Now, it’s time to hear from Caroline Libresco, who described documentary directors as “hard-working, passionate, immensely talented, and probably a little bit crazy for persisting in the impossible realm of documentary filmmaking.” What I love about getting the low down from these two is that they each have different films they want to talk about—and they’re not shy about it. In my earlier conversations with head programmer Trevor Goth and Festival director John Cooper, I heard all about how Sundance films are decided by the passions of the programmers, and I think that’s in evidence here.

Just as a reminder, if you want to learn more about the documentaries playing at Sundance, the best guide I’d recommend can be found at, where Basil Tsiokos, a documentary programming associate for the festival, gives spot-on summaries of each film. Here’s what Caroline had to say…

Could you describe the standards you use to select the docs?

As programmers we evaluate films on their own terms. When I watch a documentary I’m asking myself, what is this filmmaker is setting out to do and to what extent is she/he accomplishing that? Our job is to be open to the ever-expanding documentary form; we don’t have a pre-determined idea of what we’re looking for. There’s no formula for when and why a documentary film works – it comes out of an organic, rigorous, and wholly singular filmmaking process. I find that a film’s resonance often stems from the inherent consonance or harmony between the chosen storytelling approach and the content being explored.

How is this year’s crop of docs different from previous years?

There’s an immediacy in the stories being told in this year’s crop of documentaries. The films are largely about the world as it is right now, grappling with stories that shape our lives – from the economy, to politics, war, democracy, technology, protest, music, urbanization, women’s rights, mortality and so on. Taken together, our documentary program is like a panoptic, nakedly honest view of contemporary human experience and institutions.

Were there any surprises?

I’m surprised by the elegant and inspired use of actors in several international documentaries we’re presenting – The Summit, Stories We Tell, and Who Is Dayani Cristal?

Can you give me a sense of what Valentine Road is like – its emotional impact? It sounds like it could be quite moving.

You hit the nail on the head. Valentine Road illuminates an excruciating American tragedy with utter sensitivity and artistry. It does this by unflinchingly probing all sides of this shocking story – from the perpetrator and his lawyers, to the teachers and students at the school, to the jury – revealing a complex web of victimization, abuse, ignorance, and broken justice.

Some of the docs are getting a fair amount of pre-fest buzz, like Cutie and the Boxer. Can you tell me about one of the films that isn’t, a gem that should not be missed?

I can’t narrow it to just one film because there are so many gems! There’s this film about the gap between rich and poor called Inequality for All that will mesmerize audiences because of the irresistible guru/sprite at its center: Robert Reich. Who knew that economics could be so riveting? I also think Blackfish will be a showstopper. I don’t want to say too much; just go see it! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the poetic, visually exquisite, and completely fresh documentary by a first-time filmmaker from the Republic of Georgia: The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear.

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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