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Sundance Documentary Round-Up: 'Rich Hill', 'Happy Valley', 'Private Violence' and 'Last Days in Vietnam'

Our Sundance coverage is just about wrapped up. Here's Glenn on four documentaries that may just end up on the Oscar long list in 11 months time.

When I moved to New York early last year, one of my movie missions was to see more documentaries. Given there’s on average three released here a week, that was never going to be too hard. I definitely succeeded with a year-end tally that nudged 50, which I think is pretty good considering years prior my number was much smaller and in some particularly disappointing years was limited exclusively to Oscar nominees. Michael has already reviewed and liked Life Itself, Nathaniel has reviewed and didn't like Web Junkie, and I announced my love for My Prairie Home. For completions sake, here are four more starting with the Grand Jury winner...

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary, Rich Hill from debut feature directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo is a look at the ironically named town of Rich Hill and three of its most isolated members.

Luckily for Tragos and Palermo, they decided to focus on these three particular individuals – Harley, Appachey and Andrew – as each has a unique story to tell. Told with a striking level of beauty in comparison to its titular subject, Rich Hill uses a structure of storytelling that is unlikely to strike who’s keen to seek it out as anything new, and yet still manages to illuminate some interesting facets of American life including the overt bullying that occurs (in front of a camera!) and Andrew’s father who frequently discusses his unfounded belief that riches are just around the corner. I am unsure as to whether the directors were trying for a universal truth in their selection of Rich Hill, MO, and their subjects, or if they just found them particularly interesting. Similarly, it doesn’t hit all that many different notes of these boys’ lives, preferring to slip into a comfortable rhythm, which was likely the point to show the dragging, mostly monotonous existence of their lives in Rich Hill as they stagger aimlessly attempting to reach their American dream.

Grade: B
Distribution: Not yet


Bless the volunteers that remain so effortlessly chirpy all throughout the day. I can barely mustre enough enthusiasm at the best of time in the middle of a long film festival, let alone at 8am as I stumbled bleary-eyed with about 30 other critics into a press screening of Amir Bar-Lev's Happy Valley. The perky reception we all got was at odds with the decidedly grim material of child molestation at Penn State University that we were about to watch, but good on them for trying to enliven us as we made our way to our seats all rickety-boned and malnourished.

Tracing the incidents that occurred between the university’s assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and his 2011 arrest for child molestation, and then more famously the aftermath involving head coach Joe Paterno who knew but said nothing, Happy Valley is a damning look at the disturbing culture of hero worship not just at Penn State, or even just America, but worldwide.. Knowing little about the case’s specifics, I found much to admire about this film, even if much of it was stomach-churning. It’s an educational and alarming portrait that provides a very focused look at its topic, while allowing itself to hint at the disturbing ramifications on a larger scale. Some effective interviews including Sandusky’s adopted son and Paterno’s widow allow for many illuminating angles to be covered. The film benefits greatly from being filmed as the events were happening as a it is able to capture some of the minutia of the developing story that may otherwise go undocumented like the wavering loyalty of a university muralist.

Grade: B+
Distribution: A&E have TV rights, but will likely get an Oscar-qualifying run.


As if child molestation wasn’t sickening enough, here’s a documentary about domestic abuse and the disturbing – many would say scandalous – American justice system’s ignorance towards the issue. Similar in many ways to Kirby Dick’s superb Oscar-nominated The Invisible War, this is a head-shaking look an issue that is hard to fathom is still actually an issue. Director Cynthia Hill was wise to focus on a state like North Carolina given it gives us a subject in the form of Kit Gruelle (pictured below), herself a survivor of domestic violence, who now fiercely advocates for the legal welfare of other women. Gruelle deservedly received a standing ovation at my public screening when she emerged from out of the crowd during the Q&A.

The film is structured mostly around Kit and her life defending people who many in society have reduced down to mere statistics and ill-thought out questions like “Why didn’t you just leave?” Cases come and go depending on the people involved (they can’t help everybody), while others take up more of her time and focus. Stumbling upon the story of a young mother named Deanne was particularly fortuitous given the was the complexities and the emotion of her story make for not just riveting and powerful cinema, but also because her story is one that is so emblematic of all that is wrong with the laws regarding this subject. Private Violence works as a portrait of the importance of people like Kit Gruelle as well showing the wider problems that cannot simply be solved by one person. It forgoes obvious moments of honey-dipped sentimentalism, but the stories of despair and the ways crawled their way out are no less emotional and gut-wrenchingly honest. This isn’t Sleeping with the Enemy, but a real look at a global sickness.

Grade: B+
Distribution: Will screen on HBO, Oscar-qualifying run likely like most HBO docs.


A film that one could easily dismiss as merely information retold, but instead surprises thanks to its assemblage of miraculously detailed archival footage. Telling the story of the fall of Saigon and the final days of American occupation, Rory Kennedy has managed to find footage of a remarkable clarity that time and time again made me look at the screen in wonder. How were these videos and photographs in such a condition? However they went about sourcing it, it elevates Last Days in Vietnam beyond mere television history channel fodder (which, considering its PBS origins, would at least have been understandable).

While many of the talking head interview subjects are well chosen and impart valuable information (Henry Kissinger, for one), it might have been valuable to hear more firsthand accounts from Vietnamese nationals, of which the film only briefly features. Given some of the incredible stories that get relayed to the viewer, it feels like a disappointing oversight from the director of A Boy’s Life and 2012 Oscar-shortlisted Ethel. Still, it’s a minor concern about a film that that evocatively details the story behind Hubert Van Es’ famous photograph, tells of how about South Vietnamese soldiers piloting their own helicopters out of the warzone, and in one sequence relays how American soldiers desperately tried to get a street tailor evacuated because, as they put it, anybody who helped an American deserved to leave. The film tells in great detail a gripping moment in history that will enrich an audience’s understanding and shine a light on less and moments that might otherwise go unrecognised while also providing a clear historic backbone to a moment in time and continues to anger and fascinate.

Grade: B+
Distribution: PBS, although I again suspect an Oscar qualifying run.

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Reader Comments (3)

All four of these sound so fascinating, especially the latter two.

Any film that tonally recalls Kirby Dick’s shattering work with The Invisible War gets immediate attention from me.

And the fall of Saigon is such a endlessly interesting topic for me so I'll definitely have to check that one out as well. I was just reading about the famous Hubert Van Es photograph the other day too.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Mark, I'm always happy to see people express interest in seeing documentaries that aren't just the biggies. The Invisible War was a bit shattering, wasn't it? Such a good and important movie, that.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks
January 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRichu

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