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Reel Life

Documentary days at Sundance show the public's ongoing obsession with reality.

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Not surprisingly, much of the coverage of the recent Sundance Film Festival complains of overly formulaic filmmaking in the dramatic competition. First-time filmmakers have been particularly chided for succumbing to the cliché of making a movie about themselves. If an alien landed its spaceship at the festival, A.O. Scott of The New York Times writes, it probably would have concluded "that the United States is populated mainly by high school students whose consuming interests are drugs, sex and killing themselves and each other." Coming-of-age stories and tales of domestic woes also dominated. Ira Sachs' Memphis-based family drama "Forty Shades of Blue," about a lonesome Russian woman, her husband and his son, took home the grand jury prize in drama.

More universally applauded were the selections in the documentary competition. "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" director Eugene Jarecki (brother of "Capturing the Friedmans" director Andrew) won the grand jury prize in documentary for "Why We Fight," a look at the connections from Eisenhower's foreign agenda to the war on Iraq. Jessica Sanders' "After Innocence," which follows the lives of cons released because of new DNA evidence, got a special prize from a jury aware of the trend in documentary filmmaking. Other docs included films about the war in Iraq, the Enron scandal, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and quadriplegic rugby players. No formulas here — not in content, anyway.

A topical trend was world politics, and this was the first year to include a world cinema competition. It also included documentaries of note, such as Simone Bitton's "Wall," about life on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, and "The Liberace of Baghdad," Sean McAllister's ode to an Iraqi musician. "Shape of the Moon," Leonard Retel Helmrich's exploration of life in Indonesia, took grand prize, though the audience gave its nod to Peter Raymont's "Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire," about the Canadian commander of United Nations forces during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

While the focus was on the documentary, world cinema also produced a respectable selection of drama. The grand jury prize winner was the Angolan submission "The Hero," a multilayered tale echoing Italian neorealism and the French new wave. The film's director, Zézé Gambao, noted that his country is entirely lacking a film industry. We can hope this proves, if nothing else, that there will always be independent films, at least wherever there is a necessity. S

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