This piece was originally published on the 6th of May 2014 by The 405. Again, a few errors have been cleared up here and there, but this was just about the most polished of the three reports I wrote during Sundance. My memory is hazy, but I may have had more time to write it (otherwise I can’t account for why this was published almost a week after the previous day’s piece, unless the editor fucked up). It also helped that I wrote about two films, rather than all four films that screened that day. I was covering the festival with my friend Jay, who also wrote about the second day of press screenings and conducted interviews with some filmmakers, and we decided to divide the final day’s slate between us. I covered the two documentaries, he covered the two fictional narrative films (Obvious Child and Blue Ruin). He got the more interesting films, I got the easier job. Fair trade-off.
I feel like a piece of shit, to be honest. Two documentaries played on Friday, the final day of press screenings and the first day of the festival proper: The Case Against 8 and Dinosaur 13. The former won the ‘Directing Award: U.S. Documentary’ at Sundance 2014 and details the recent five-year legal battle in California to overrule Proposition 8, which repealed the right for same-sex couples to marry. The latter charts the complex custody battle which began in the 1990s following the discovery of the most complete T-Rex fossil ever. Now, guess which one nearly made me cry and ended up being one more impressive films I saw at the festival? Yeah, the one about the fucking dinosaur. Not the one about the unwavering battle for equality, the tragic denial of constitutional rights, and the dehumanisation of a minority group; no, the one about a dead T-Rex called Sue. Good job, brain!
Seriously though, reductive affectation aside, that instinctive reaction was initially surprising to me. You’d expect a film about social justice to register with the emotions in a way a film about palaeontology simply couldn’t, right? Taking some time to think about it, however, has led me to conclude that my reaction was likely predicated on that kind of expectation. I mean, the two are constructed in very similar ways, so expectation is the only thing that stands out to me. They both conform to the conventional perception of documentary: the viewer is guided through the twists and turns of chronological narrative with the assistance of talking-head interviews with those involved in the respective events, fly-on-the-wall footage, archival materials, and reenactments. They’re both told functionally, but never particularly brazenly. Neither film has an overt authorial voice, both in the sense that the filmmakers are invisible at all times and that they’re both formally anonymous. Although, to their credit, they both also lack the shaky edifice of impartiality that bogs down many documentaries – both pick a side and run with it. They are, in other words, equally unremarkable documentaries in terms of filmmaking.
What Dinosaur 13 had going for it that The Case Against 8 didn’t, however, was the surprise factor. As I alluded to before, it recalls the frankly ridiculous legal saga that erupted when a group of well-intentioned palaeontologists discovered the largest T-Rex specimen ever in South Dakota and planned to put it in their museum. It’s an archetypical brouhaha, given that something seemingly innocuous escalates beyond all comprehension. Now, I had somehow never come across this story before and had no idea how it would develop, so as it further descended into an absurd legal netherworld, one where digging up fossils can be an offence worthy of over one-hundred-and-fifty indictments from a U.S. court of law (seriously), I found myself more and more engrossed. Even though it’s not the most formally engaging film, it nonetheless competently guides the viewer through a story story that’s so fucking bizarre that it cannot help but be compelling. I obviously won’t go into the fine details to save the surprise, but it’s a truly fascinating tale of passion, the quest for knowledge, and government’s byzantine legal workings ruthlessly fucking people over. Its steadfast acceptance of the palaeontologists’ account may frustrate those who believe that documentaries have to be impartial (which is ultimately impossible and silly), but I found their words enlightening – I suppose I just get a kick out of people getting really passionate about their niche obsessions. The palaeontologists still seem deeply hurt by the whole saga, and, even if it could be slightly put on for the camera, their remarkable commitment to something much larger themselves (in a word, history) was inspiring and thought-provoking. To be extremely cliché about it: it was, of course, never about the dinosaur, but the extraordinary journey of the people involved. And in that sense, it succeeds.
Obviously, I could say the same about about The Case Against 8. They’re actually very similar on a fundamental thematic level, given that they’re both essentially about the little guy fighting against archaic legal machinations. But I expected that from The Case Against 8, not Dinosaur 13. The whole Proposition 8 case is still recent enough to be fresh in the memory, considering that the Supreme Court only deemed it unconstitutional last year. As a result, the film, however well-meaning, never felt particularly urgent or dramatic to me because I knew how it would play out. It hits all the expected beats, and, while the fly-on-the-wall legal stuff is quite interesting, it never transcends its status as a simplistic, crowd-pleasing record of a monumentally nuanced legal battle. While that’s okay to some extent, I never felt intellectually or emotionally challenged because it’s all a bit obvious. It tells you what to feel, when to feel it, and lays it on very heavily with the mawkishness; but as someone who believes in same-sex marriage and social justice, the film only tacitly affirmed my views while giving very little insight into much else. It’s just not the most engaging of viewing experiences, however agreeable its subject matter is, and I’m really at a loss as to how it won a directing award at Sundance USA. It must have been a bad year or something.