What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus

What Happened, Miss Simone? by filmmaker Liz Garbus premieres at Sundance Film Festival 2015

We’re a few days into the Sundance Film Festival and for those of us who are tracking things from afar, it’s looking to be another cauldron of documentary promise. Here, I’m going to collect the Sundance news so far.

Four of the most highly anticipated films, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Going Clear, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and The Hunting Ground, already had heavy-hitter distribution plans in place (Netflix, HBO, HBO and Weinstein Company/CNN, respectively) so those films’ fates were already secured. Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, about Scientology, got the most buzz, mostly because it has apparently delivered the goods by targeting member Tom Cruise and revealing major goings-on at the top, including how the church pushed for Cruise to separate from his wife, Nicole Kidman. According to reviews, Montage of Heck delivers an exhaustive warts-and-all portrait of the musician… I, for one, can’t wait to see it.

If this all sounds too celebrity-focused to garner your interest, the other most talked about film has been The Hunting Ground, which documents sexual assault on campus. Like Gibney, director Kirby Dick goes after the big fish, including naming schools such as Harvard and University of North Carolina for their inability to make their campuses safe. He also went after Florida State quarterback and 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, accused of sexual assault in 2012. I imagine the budgets to muster the legal teams to protect Going Clear and The Hunting Ground must dwarf the entire budgets of most of the docs made in the past year.

As for acquisitions, there hasn’t been much news. Tribeca Films picked up Misery Loves Comedy the day of its premiere on Friday. Comedian Kevin Pollak’s directorial debut about how to make people laugh features A-listers from Whoopi Goldberg to Jimmy Fallon, so it’s got obvious commercial appeal. Racing Extinction, directed by Oscar winner Louie Psihoyo (The Cove), about endangered animals, is prime for the picking. Represented by powerhouse Cinetic Media, it could be the next to go.

The one film that has really floated to the top, one without recognizable names and much clout, is Wolfpack. It’s an intriguing film by first-time director Crystal Moselle, about a large family that was raised almost entirely cloistered in their Manhattan Lower East Side apartment. Homeschooled, the kids’ one connection to the outside world was cinema. They were allowed by their parents to watch tons of movies. The media has jumped on this story, which it does indeed sound like a Capturing the Friedmans-like tale of family dysfunction.

Oh, and by the way, at that other festival, Slamdance, the documentary Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World, had its remake rights picked up by none other than Julia Roberts.

I never cease to marvel at the endless amount of new amazing stories captured by documentary filmmakers. And for a select and fortunate few, their first launching pad to the public is at Sundance.

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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