Watching Sundance from Afar

I’ve never been to the Sundance Film Festival, and have no burning desire to hang out with the stars in a ski resort in Utah, but I have been trying to follow a bit of what’s going on. Here are a few films that I’m hearing good things about and which, with any luck, will make it to Toronto either at HotDocs or TIFF:

The film summaries are from the much more attractive and usefully-designed Unofficially Sundance site.

In a Soldier’s Footsteps

In a Soldier's Footsteps

In a Soldier’s Footsteps (Denmark, 2005, Director: Mette Zeruneith, 89 minutes): Truth really is stranger than fiction. When we first meet Steven Ndugga in 1999, he’s a personable and articulate refugee living in Denmark who approaches the filmmakers wanting to have his story told. A former child soldier, he escaped Uganda with his life, but lost his wife and son. Years later, during the filming of this documentary, he receives information that his son is still alive, and is in fact now a child soldier himself. After Steven returns to Uganda to find his son, he disappears. Over the next five years, he reappears and then disappears again, and the story just keeps getting stranger. Like a Graham Greene novel, the film finds the truth elusive, but it makes a fascinating tale.

Article about the film on the Danish Film Institute web site

9/10(9/10)

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (USA/UK, 2006, Director: Paul Crowder and John Downer, 97 minutes): The North American Soccer League was struggling along through the 1970s until the New York Cosmos, owned by Warner Communications head Steve Ross, decided to bring superstar Pele to the Big Apple. Suddenly, attendance was up, and the Cosmos started winning. Continuing the formula by bringing some European stars over, the Cosmos won several league titles over the next few years. In the process, the once-moribund NASL expanded quickly to 24 teams. Unfortunately, the resulting dilution of talent, and the inability of smaller-market clubs to pay the huge salaries demanded by European or Latin American stars, meant that the league soon imploded.

The film tells the story with humour and verve, and it’s hard not to be a little bit nostalgic for the days when 70,000 people would crowd into Giants stadium to watch “the other football.” But ultimately, the Cosmos’ strategy was short-sighted. Building an audience for soccer in North America was going to take time, and the free-spending style of Ross and the Cosmos attracted only fairweather fans, who would melt away as soon as the team stopped winning. Other franchises couldn’t attract enough fans in the first place, and the league suffered as a result.

It was interesting that the director admitted afterwards that he is a huge fan of Chelsea Football Club in the English Premiership. Chelsea are following a similar strategy at the moment, with the seemingly endless billions of owner Roman Abramovich funding the construction of another superteam. So far, they’ve won back to back titles in England, but to the detriment of the league, according to many observers. Without a salary cap, the English Premier League drains talent away from the rest of the world, and Chelsea are the richest club of all. This concentration of talent makes the game less competitive in the long term, and while it may attract a few new fans, they’re not the sort of fans who will stick around if and when the team starts losing.

Many of the American innovations brought to the game by the NASL have made it into the game in the rest of the world. For example, penalty shootouts to decide games tied after regulation time. This will always be unpopular with football purists, but for the casual fan, it certainly adds excitement to the game. Other gimmicks weren’t so successful, thankfully. Who wants to see cheerleaders at a football match?

The only flaw in the film was the absence of any present-day interviews with Pele or Johan Cruyff (who played for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats franchises), though I believe numerous attempts were made to obtain their participation. The director Paul Crowder promised lots of fun stuff in the DVD extras, including their attempts to get Pele on board.

An interesting article on the editing of the film

Official site of the New York Cosmos

Wikipedia entry on the New York Cosmos

Information on the NASL from the National Soccer Hall of Fame

The American Soccer History Archives

The NASL Alumni Association arranged a reunion for more than 60 former players in September 2005.

9/10(9/10)

Fuck

Fuck

Fuck (USA, 2006, Director: Steve Anderson, 93 minutes): The premise was promising. A film that would take a look at this most offensive of words, from both a liberal and conservative perspective. But despite the many talking heads, the film ultimately doesn’t say much. Except “fuck”. More than 600 times.

This was an entertaining film, but ultimately not an enlightening one, and that frustrated me. Despite the presence of both “liberals” (Hunter S. Thompson, Drew Carey, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Maher) and conservatives (Alan Keyes, Pat Boone, Michael Medved, “Miss Manners”), the film definitely skewed to the anti-censorship camp. And that’s too bad, because although I’m not pro-censorship, there were definitely issues that could have and should have been explored. Instead, all of the conservatives came across as a little bit loony. As well, the film takes a tangent into the area of pornography, with porn stars Ron Jeremy and Tera Patrick on board to remind us that fuck means “to have sex.” And then to show us. This seemed a bit gratuitous to me.

The truth is that people use the f-bomb because it is transgressive. And at the same time, it’s becoming less and less transgressive all the time as it permeates our culture. Despite the presence of several academics, nobody talked about why we use language this way, and what happens when it loses this sort of power. Pat Boone briefly talked about how rap lyrics debase women, but nobody responded to that. Since another film I saw this week (Beyond Beats) took that issue on without coming across as pro-censorship, this failure to address an important issue seemed glaring to me. Especially since the overwhelming majority of the portrayals we saw in this film were of men using the word to threaten or belittle or dismiss someone else. I’m not an uptight joyless conservative, but I do think the film could still have been fun while addressing some real language and cultural issues.

The most interesting thing in the film for me was when Janeane Garofalo admitted that the HBO program “Deadwood” had too many f-words for her, that she found it excessive. To me, that was something that needed further explanation, and I wanted to hear what the other “liberals” thought about it as well. After fighting for free speech, and winning, then what? Certainly the comedians would hit a dry patch. All of the comedy bits were from the 1960s to the 1980s, which I thought was telling. It’s just not as shocking anymore when everybody says it. Drew Carey joked at the end, “When’s the cunt movie coming out?” which tells you that he gets it.

The director himself said after the film that even he’s not necessarily promoting the idea that people should be able to say fuck on network television or radio, but that he thinks the discussion is important. It’s just too bad that that didn’t come across so well in the finished film.

Visit the film’s web site

7/10(7/10)

EYE Weekly: ** (out of 5) (review)