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Sympathy for the Devil 

Even horny horse whisperers get off in Sundance docs

Wednesday, Jan 31 2007
PARK CITY, Utah -- Ten days of terse texting among professional narcissists working on little or no sleep in one of the last cold spots left on Al Gore's inconvenient Earth: Welcome to Sundance '07, where wounding homefront melodrama Grace Is Gone sells and it hardly pays to be nice.

Indeed, only the most well-insulated of parka-clad, swag-swinging power-players here could fail to identify in some fashion with a military officer's stark confession near the start of the standout documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib: "That place turned me into a monster."

Bidding war is hell. On the other hand, in terms of the sentiments expressed onscreen, this may well be remembered as the year that compassion came to Sundance. Hearts have always bled profusely here, but in '07, doc after doc seeks genuine sympathy for the devil. Crazy Love, a quizzical look at the jilted beau who blinded then married his sweetie, follows suit with the maimed missus by turning the other cheek. (Applause greeted the septuagenarian odd couple when they took a bow after the first screening: Let's hear it for . . . marriage?)

Laura Dunn's The Unforeseen -- commissioned by Terrence Malick, who could have called it The New World II -- dares to humanize Gary Bradley, the developer who would've turned Austin's beloved Barton Springs into a mudhole, were it not for his S&L-induced bankruptcy. And Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, screening in competition at the festival (and airing February 22 on HBO), uses a 45-year-old clinical study of torture to make the point that almost any of us could be pressured into giving a beating, but it takes a boss like Rumsfeld to give the order.

"I think obedience to authority is one of the more significant contributing factors to why people do unconscionable things," says Kennedy, an accomplished filmmaker whose identity as RFK's daughter is, even at left-leaning Sundance, one of the more striking embodiments of documentary as politics by other means. "So much of what happened at Abu Ghraib came from the top down, and yet the people in authority haven't taken real responsibility, nor have they been held accountable." Ghosts of Abu Ghraib certainly isn't news, but, as docs are also journalism by other means, it's largely about the failure of news. "The mainstream media . . . took the [Bush] administration's position on the crimes as the truth -- which is another kind of obedience to authority."

Likewise inspired by inadequate journalism, Robinson Devor's Zoo achieves the seemingly impossible: It tells the luridly reported tale of a Pacific Northwest businessman's fatal sexual encounter with a horse in a way that's haunting rather than shocking and tender beyond reason. It's hard to imagine a more cinematic Sundance film than Devor's suitably crossbred doc-cum-docudrama, which weds the audio testimonies of the dead man's zoophilic companions to speculatively reenacted, dreamlike visuals that feature both professional actors and real-life subjects -- Arabian stallions included.

"I don't think there should be any rules in filmmaking," says the scruffy Devor, his mane matted down by a huge black knit cap that could be mistaken for a bridle. "There are very few subjects anymore that are quote-unquote dirty to the average person, subjects that a filmmaker could endeavor against all odds to make beautiful. I just felt there was some love in this story -- some beauty and friendship and emotion."

In other words: Zoophiles are people too, but not so the genocidal monsters of the Darfur doc The Devil Came on Horseback; more on them and other unforgivens in next week's coverage.

About The Author

Rob Nelson


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