Sundance: Films Critiqued by a Non-Critic

World Premiere
Who Killed the Electric Car?

U.S., 2005, 90 minutes, color
Director: Chris Paine
Screenwriter: Chris Paine
Executive Producers: Dean Devlin, Richard D. Titus, Tavin Marin Titus
Producer: Jessie Deeter
Co-producer: Kathy Weiss
Associate Producers: Natalie Artin, Jeff Steele
Cinematographer: Thaddeus Wadleigh
Editor: Michael Kovlenko

Executive producer Richard Titus tells the Harbus, “This is a film about global warming, our addiction to oil, and the complexities and difficulties of instituting change within an established system.”

Serious stuff. Documentaries about such weighty issues aren’t supposed to be funny, but there are slapstick moments as people leasing electric cars from GM and other manufacturers try in vain to re-lease or purchase the vehicles. The manufacturers come up with all kinds of reasons – limited battery life, lack of demand for the cars, bad parts, pollution from coal burning electrical plants – which the documentary refutes one-by-one. As drivers are forced to turn in their cars or go to jail, they reluctantly allow the tow truck to claim their prized vehicles as the cameras roll. But wait! Activists discover the parking lot where the cars are sitting unused. I won’t give the rest away, but one moment perfectly exploits the power of film: an auto executive is interviewed assuring everyone the cars won’t be destroyed and the next scene is shot from a helicopter somewhere over the Arizona desert, zooming in on the company’s crusher demolishing the electric cars. Who killed the electric car? This film leaves no stone unturned in discovering a surprisingly large cadre of culprits. The film received a standing ovation.

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

World Premiere
Black Gold

United Kingdom, 2005, 82 minutes, color
Directors: Marc Francis, Nick Francis
Executive Producer: Christopher Hird
Co-producers: Nick Francis, Marc Francis
Editor: Hugh Williams
Composer: Andreas Kapsalis

Exquisitely photographed in the coffee fields of Ethiopia, this documentary reveals what .54 per pound in coffee revenue buys in terms of lifestyle. The conditions under which these coffee farmers live can only be described as horrific. The search for better coffee prices is seen through the eyes of Tadesse Meskela, who asks for, but seldom gets, fair-trade prices for the farmers he represents. The film travels to the failed World Trade Organization negotiations, implying there is plenty of blame to spread for the low prices plaguing the coffee industry.

Marc and Nick Francis, together with Hugh Williams, interpose scenes of well-dressed customers sipping lattes at coffee shops around the world with scenes of families crowded in huts with dirt floors and kids forgoing school to support their families. Composer Andreas Kapsalis created some of the music using real coffee beans. He said, “I felt theÿmusic for Black Goldÿhad toÿbe veryÿcaffeinatedÿsince this was a film about coffee.” The score is as rich as the photography.

The filmmakers were careful to say the film is not aimed at any particular company or country. Starbucks, an official Sundance sponsor, had an employee at the screening to share the company’s point of view. (According to Starbucks’ December 2004 proxy, a shareholder resolution was put forth to purchase all Fair Trade coffee by the year 2010. The board recommended voting against the resolution, and it was defeated. In 2004 around 2% of Starbucks’ coffee was Fair Trade, a level farmers say would allow them a decent living.)

At the premiere one audience member raised his hand to ask how much farmers needed to finish building a school. He wrote a $10,000 check on the spot.

Distribution: under negotiation

Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture
U.S, 2005, 60 minutes
Director: Byron Hurt
Screenwriter: Byron Hurt
Executive Producer: Stanley Nelson
Producer: Byron Hurt
Co-producer: Sabrina Schmidt Gordon
Cinematographer: Bill Winters
Editor: Sabrina Schmidt Gordon

I’ve never really cared for Hip-Hop and had low expectations going into this film. But halfway through, I realized I was riveted.
The film exposes a white police officer tasked with keeping order outside a concert. The camera records incidents of African-American women being groped and grabbed in line while no one does anything to stop it. Producer Byron Hurt asks the policeman why he doesn’t help, and the officer responds that there are a lot of people at the concert and police can’t be everywhere. Hurt clucks sympathetically as the camera slowly zooms out to reveal a group of white policemen standing away from the crowd seemingly doing nothing.

On camera Hurt, a hip-hop fan, confronts top rappers, female fans and white males about the violence and sexual assaults they silently condone. When faced with difficult questions, one rapper can’t look him in the eye and another simply turns away from him mid-conversation. Through its film, the crew artfully exposes the prejudice and self-deceptions of the fans, record executives, and rappers who perpetuate a male ideal that too often ends in tragedy and an early death.

Distribution: PBS, via the show “Independent Lens,” will consider on-site educational screenings

World Premiere
All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise

U.S., 2005, 91 minutes, color
Director: Shari Cookson
Executive Producers: Sheila Nevins, Rosie O’Donnell, Kelli O’Donnell
Producers: Shari Cookson,
John Hoffman
Co-producer: Charlton McMillan
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
Editor: Charlton McMillan

Several years ago Rosie and Kelli O’Donnell decided to book a cruise ship for one week and fill it with gay and gay- friendly families. The result is a world without judgment and a relaxed, caring atmosphere for meeting new friends: a sort of floating Utopia. The boat is bursting with babies and happy children, as well as grown-ups glad for a respite from well-meaning opinions. The pain of being excluded in the real world is driven home to viewers by the joy derived from being able to relax and be themselves, even if only for a week.

The producers pick several families to follow throughout the week. We see the joys and headaches of parenting; one couple’s struggle to conceive; and another couple struggling to let go as their daughter comes of age. There are babies everywhere-in the pool, making faces and on the shoulders of proud parents. The clear message is that family values aren’t just for heterosexuals.

In one spot, the group is told to expect protests when they dock in the Bahamas. Appropriately, a storm arrives complete with lightning. Some, including Rosie, elect to stay behind. Those who venture out remain calm in front of the protestors, but their pain is quite evident on camera.

Distribution: HBO