One of the most controversial films at Sundance 2020 was so by virtue of which program it premiered in. The Ross Brothers don’t make traditional documentaries, but their latest, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” stretches the definition of the genre further than even what they’ve done before. I talked to a few people who felt like it didn’t belong in a non-fiction category, and even some who felt cheated by it. Personally, I like anyone willing to push boundaries of form, and the Ross Brothers are definitely doing that here, finding something deeper and stranger than they may have with a more traditional structure. They are filmmakers who understand that all directors, even the documentary ones, are storytellers, shaping narratives from real life as much as the fiction ones do. And so their film reaches for something just as truthful as either pure doc or pure fiction, finding a hybrid place in the middle that makes it no less powerful.
The conceit of “Bloody Nose” is that we are spending the last night at a Las Vegas bar with its regulars. Filmed like a series of overheard conversations at a dive, the result is like a snapshot of a disappearing strata of America, filmed on the day after Trump got elected. In an increasingly tech-driven world, the art of bar friendship seems to be a lost one, and there’s definitely something nostalgic about the personalities we meet here, although they’re never overtly misty-eyed about the end of an era. It’s embedded in their discussions and actions. For example, when one of them sings along to Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” you can sense that he’s remembering something lost, an association with a song that’s never explicit but still melancholic for the viewer. “Bloody Nose” is filled with moments like that – many of them joyous and very funny, while others are incredibly sad. And most of them get increasingly inebriated.
As viewers of the world premiere didn’t find out until after the screening, the conceit isn’t exactly genuine. The film wasn’t shot at a closing dive bar in Vegas. It's still open. And it's still in New Orleans, where the Ross brothers gathered some locals and told them to pretend it was the last night of an off-strip watering hole. So, there is a degree of acting here, but it’s improvisational and clearly driven by the truth of these people’s real lives. The result is a film that plays out almost like a dream more than a traditional doc or narrative feature. Like a story told by a drunk at a bar. The artifice of it comes not from a Hollywood production, but really just one step removed from real life. In a sense, dive bars are always one step removed from real life, a place meant to serve as an escape or comfort in an uncomfortable world. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” captures something about how people we drink with can become more like family than our own relatives, and wistfully says goodbye to a form of companionship that seems to be going away.
There’s a deeper melancholy imbued in every frame of Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” one of the most acclaimed documentaries of Sundance 2020, and a film I expect will find a very strong critical following when it’s released. People will be immediately drawn to Fox Rich, one of the most unforgettable documentary subjects of the last few years. Rich is not only a mother of six boys, but she is a successful businesswoman, who has become something of a community leader as she fights for the release of her husband, Rob. Twenty years ago, Rob and Fox robbed a bank, something for which Fox has shown deep regret and did some time for, but Rob was sentenced to six decades for one very bad decision.
Since he went away, Fox has been recording home videos for Rob, and so “Time” offers a glimpse of a life devoted to family and freeing her husband. Bradley cuts from the videos to gorgeously filmed black-and-white footage of the current Rich family, turning this story into a deep examination of what’s been lost. We get to know not just Fox but her open, honest sons, who have clearly learned how to be good young men from a powerful mother. The final scenes of “Time” are incredibly moving as Bradley’s film comes together as not so much a look at the pain of the Rich story but their overwhelming endurance.
You’ll need endurance for David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya,” a tough watch that’s worth it for the message it sends about tolerance and bravery. Since 2016, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has spearheaded the state-sponsored capture and torture of gay people throughout his country. France aligns himself with the men and women trying to free the people who now fear for their lives in this openly hostile and deadly part of the world, and asks the truly terrifying question of if we don’t stop it there, how far can this kind of behavior spread?
France takes a fly-on-the-wall approach for much of his film, putting us in the safe houses with the young men and women trying to travel the “Rainbow Railroad” to Canada. We see the detailed process it takes to rescue these young men and women, whose identities are protected by a new technology that basically gives them a face and voice on film that’s not their own. And he intercuts his film with horrifying footage of hate crimes against gay people in the region, which you will never forget, making the stakes of this mission clear. It’s a matter of life and death.
“Welcome to Chechnya” is as fearless as its subjects, unafraid to show the violence and emotional torture of these people. We see a young man slit his wrists in the safe house, and they can’t call 911 because it would reveal their location. We learn how it’s even harder for lesbians in this region to escape because women can’t travel as freely. We hear the story of a young woman who has been told that she must have sex with her uncle or have her homosexuality reported to the authorities. Even the people who have devoted their lives to stopping this horror seem shaken by it all, their eyes carrying the heavy weight of what they’ve seen. And yet they persevere. If they can stay strong enough to fight true evil every single day, you owe it to them to hear their stories.