Stranger Than Fiction

Leaving Neverland and More: a Compelling Year for Sundance Documentaries

Still from Leaving Neverland by Dan Reed.

If truth is stranger than fiction, then our world has really gone sideways. Prankish Satan worshippers, sloppy Turkish beekeepers, a terminally ill shock magician and a world-famous (alleged) pedophile were among the main attractions of the documentary lineup at Sundance this year. And it’s even harder to believe everyone’s veracity when reality seems so elusive.

Cold Case

You want to see a secret society of assassins weaponize the HIV virus? Just watch Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld, which starts out as an investigation into a mysterious 1961 plane crash that kills U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld on a remote airfield in Northern Rhodesia. (Spoiler alert: he was murdered.)

But wait, there’s more: a shady Danish mining company, a 200-year-old group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research, and a trail of dead bodies meant to cover up an audacious attempt to cause an apartheid-fueled genocide. The New York Times already debunked this last point, which ultimately questions the whole fascinating if wildly paranoid exercise. “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory,” admits the director with a straight face and a twinkle in his eye. Hmmm.

Not Too Amazing

Another chin-stroker is Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, Benjamin Berman’s self-referential portrait of ’90s prestidigitator the Amazing Johnathan (née John Edward Szeles), who miraculously seems to have outlived a terminal-disease death sentence. Or was it a put-on? And what’s that other film crew doing there? Bizarre twists and turns follow (is Berman about to smoke meth?), in a meager story that’s far too interested in navel gazing than it is in its Hail Mary attempt to become a meta-documentary.

The King Of Pop Unmasked

Far more convincing, although legally unproven, is the 236-minute Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s riveting and admittedly one-sided account of two men who assert that Michael Jackson sexually abused them at a tender age. James Safechuck met the ’80s superstar when he was cast in a Pepsi commercial, and had his first sexual encounter with MJ at the age of 10. Jackson allegedly molested Australian expat Wade Robson, who won a dance contest to meet his idol, when Robson was only seven.

Early on, Reed made the decision to only interview the two men along with their immediate family. Their confessions, brimming with graphic details, will leave you shellshocked. French kissing, oral sex, masturbation, analingus. Jackson even had a mock wedding with Safechuck, and traded jewelry for sexual favors. The men give damning and damn near convincing testimony over the course of four hours. Far more focused on the Safechucks and the Robsons than on Jackson, the powerful exposé paints an epic portrait of a family devastated by child molestation. The molester, in this instance, just happens to be the King of Pop.

A Movie About the Most Evil Being, and Also a Movie About Satan Worshippers

Monsters walk among us. Just ask Matt Tyrnauer, whose disturbing, depressingly prescient study Where’s My Roy Cohn? revisits the infamous bare-knuckled lawyer of red-scare Senator Joseph McCarthy and mega-narcissist President Donald Trump. A proselytizer of the deny-deny-attack handbook, confidante of President Reagan and John Gotti, Cohn won the death-sentence conviction of the Rosenbergs and vehemently rejected rumors of his homosexuality all the way to an early grave via AIDS. And in death, the bullying, intimidating fear-monger has become the clear progenitor of our current political climate.

courtesy of Sundance Institute

Want a lighter look at life? Just watch the unexpectedly delightful Hail Satan?, Penny Lane’s weirdly inspiring look at Beelzebub’s modern-day followers. Surprise: they’re actually Catholic Church trolls who politically skew libertarian, endorse progressive personal freedoms, promote equality and tolerance for all, and tend to skip the human sacrifices. Their highest-profile act: insisting that their goat-headed statue of Baphomet be erected alongside any public monuments of the Ten Commandments. Equal representation of religious beliefs, right? More often than not, the state councils end up removing the Lord’s Decalogue.

The Bees!

Over in the World Documentary competition, a buzzy little film called Honeyland was quietly breathtaking. The beautifully directed movie, which initially and even ultimately

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

looks and feels like a fiction film, follows a middle-aged Macedonian woman who lives in a remote valley with her blind, bed-ridden mother. She ekes out a meager living for them both by tending to her bees and collecting honey to sell at the local market. But then a raucous family of Turks move in next door and create chaos with their maladroit attempts to start a farm. Kindness, loneliness, intolerance, greed, empathy, and perseverance all disarmingly collide.

Reality Disruptors

But two outstanding documentaries really dazzled with an approach that felt downright experimental: neither filmmaker even had to shoot anything. Both worked with existing materials plucked out of archives, and both shaped their found-footage material with amazing results

Avi Belkin’s shattering psychological portrait Mike Wallace Is Here artfully uses existing interviews of the pugilistic CBS newsman, plus his heated exchanges with others, to reveal the melancholic man behind the gleeful legend. Belkin’s thesis: that Wallace’s showbiz style of aggressive confrontation was the Big Bang that created the world of Fox News and opinion-fueled pundits. The director culled through hundreds of on-air hours and off-camera moments from 60 Minutes and other TV programs to argue his case, and it’s a convincing auto-portrait.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Most galactically compelling of all, though, was Apollo 11, a jawdropping, harrowing, and ultimately inspiring look at America’s moon mission. NASA opened up its vaults to director Todd Douglas Miller, giving him access to never-before-seen 70mm footage of the space program that was shot for posterity but unavailable to the public until now. They also allowed him access to 18,000 hours of audio recordings from Central Command, which forms the spine of this otherwise completely non-narrative and totally immersive experience. From terrestrial launch, to lunar landing, to splashdown return, Apollo 11 creates a spine-tingling you-are-there experience that makes 50-year-old history unforgettably visceral.



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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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