Of the reliably quality films that the Sundance team brought to London’s O2 Arena, it was – intriguingly – the documentaries that stole the festival. Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, a dissection of the failure of the USA’s war on drugs was brilliantly, blisteringly educative. At times it felt unrelentingly factual, like being beaten with an encyclopaedia, but a perfectly judged, intellectual zoom-out of a finale slotted everything into one glorious, politically angry shape.
Jarecki, whose 2005 documentary Why We Fight explored the aberrant logic of the military-industrial complex, describes The House I Live In as about the prison-industrial complex. Driven by the drug-induced death of the son of his family’s maid Nannie, the film kicks off with the bracing fact that the US war on drugs has failed in its objective to reduce drug use. What it has succeeded in doing is filling up the prisons and creating thousands of jobs for The Man. The futility of banging up street dealer after street dealer is pointed out by one academic who wryly states out that it’s like jailing the guy who serves you McDonalds. Peppered with strident, illustrative interviews with everyone from The Wire‘s David Simon to a hard-ass prison guard who believes this system isn’t working, what emerges is a bleak picture of, not a war on drugs but a war on class.
If there is hope it comes from the fact that THILI is being used as a political instrument by Jarecki, who is specifically focusing on protesting the three strike rule in California and the disparate sentencing ratio between crack (a poor drug) and cocaine (a rich drug) throughout America. The general issue of how to use documentary to effect social change was on the agenda for a fascinating panel discussion. BRITDOC – a part of Channel 4 – is in the process of creating jobs to investigate the nitty-gritty of how documentaries can be most successfully harnessed. Besides industry experts, the panel featured contributions from Jarecki but also Jeff Orlowski and Lauren Greenfield.
Orlowski’s film Chasing Ice was the most visually stunning, cinematic film I have ever seen and I encourage every single one of you to catch it when it is eventually distributed. Created from five years worth of time-lapse photography gathered by National Geograpic man, James Balog, it is irrefutable visual proof of climate change. The glaciers are melting and this film lets you see it with your own eyes. With Balog’s substantial vision and dedication providing a human hook – he threatens his health by abseiling down glaciers with a dodgy knee – Chasing Ice sends shivers down the spine with both its beauty and terrifying significance.
Beauty is a feature that has defined the life of Jackie Siegel, the billionaire’s wife and ex-model at the heart of Greenfield’s documentary, The Queen of Versailles. The doc begins with Jackie taking a tour of the construction site of America’s biggest house, a mock Versailles financed by her husband’s time-share fortune. Then the financial crash happens and we witness a relative riches-to-rags transformation of the lives of Jackie, her husband David and their children, housekeepers and innumerable neglected pets. The voyeuristic thrill of watching these people struggle in a still gold-plated fantasy bubble occasionally gives way to poignant insights into the grasping and bankrupt nature of the American Dream.
Sundance London Film Festival took place at O2 Arena from 26 to 29 April 2012