With the opening day rituals taken care of, the festival got underway in earnest with the first full day of programming drawing hordes of fans, press and industry insiders into the darkened screening rooms and away from the slopes that beckon in the glorious sunshine around Park City. Meantime, lest anyone forget that this place is also a crucially important distribution market, the first sale of Sundance 2014 has been recorded. Dinosaur 13, the documentary by Todd Miller that screened on opening night, has been picked up for theatrical distribution by Lionsgate, with CNN acquiring a US broadcast premiere. The film recounts the facts around the finding of the most complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton ever recovered, in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Far from your run of the mill PBS paleontology special, the story quickly veers into drama when the skeleton found by a team of amateur fossil diggers is seized by the FBI, who charge it was improperly removed from public lands. The film steers clear of the simple news report on the legal battle, weaving a tale of conflicting passions, government overreach, academic jurisdiction, and above all, exposing the fascinating personalities of the colorful protagonists of the story. An early reminder this year, that characters and stories well told are the indispensable ingredients for a successful film whether it be fiction or documentary.
And the latter category promises once again to feature prominently in this year’s fest, as per Robert Redford and festival director John Cooper’s intent. Sundance is after all responsible, probably more than any other festival, for the resurgence of the nonfictional genre over the past couple of decades, having showcased such seminal works as The Cove, Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, Grizzly Man and Capturing the Friedmans among many others. The festival has now become almost an obligatory stop for great documentaries; as Cooper rightfully gloated, no less than four of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature Oscar had their premiere here last year. Among those that screened today are Michael Rossato-Bennett’s remarkable Alive Inside, a film about the healing power of music and its potential for reconnecting with dementia patients. But what could appear on paper as a less-than-enticing slough though an unpleasant subject is in fact a moving, informative and dramatic film that had scores of hardened festival goers reaching moist-eyed for their tissues.
In a movie that does for the elderly what Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman did for school children, Rossato-Bennett documents the efforts to introduce iPods loaded with music into nursing homes and films, one apparently catatonic patient after another coming startlingly to life simply by being exposed to the music that can unlock memories and above all a lost sense of self. The film benefits from the informed opinions of experts like Oliver Sachs on the music’s effects on the human brain, but above all it deftly blends advocacy on a crucially timely issue with the pure emotion that is the hallmark of filmmaking at its best.