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Sundance 2020: On the Record, Into the Deep, Assassins

Everyone at Sundance this year agreed that the non-fiction slate was one of the strongest in the history of a festival that has produced more than its fair share of beloved documentaries. As the festival gets into its midsection and the question of yearly favorites gets lobbed on every shuttle and in every theater lobby, more and more documentaries are coming back as the answer, including acclaimed hits like “Boys State,” “Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets,” “Time,” and more that we will cover before the fest has wrapped up for the year. Three of the most fascinating experiences I had at Sundance this year were non-fiction films that I suspect will find equally captivated audiences when these films descend from the Park City mountains.

The best of the three is Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s controversial and devastating “On the Record,” the story of not just the awful crimes allegedly committed by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons but how the culture in the music industry has engendered one in which women can be treated as disposable objects. It’s a multi-faceted film that offers a study in courage from the women who share their stories while also centering this entire story in the history of music, black culture, business, and unbridled misogyny. The World Premiere was one of the most emotional filmgoing experiences of my life, as Ziering and Dick shared the stage with the subjects of their film, incredibly brave women who are only now getting a chance to tell their stories.

“On the Record” is primarily the story of Drew Dixon, a producer who helped define the sound of DefJam Records and worked closely with Simmons for years. She was clearly a brilliant music executive, able to not only hear the next major talent but bring out the best in them. She was an incredible producer, responsible for hits by Method Man, Mary J. Blige, Santana, Lauryn Hill, and many more. One of the most tragic things about “On the Record” is what’s embedded in a lot of the #MeToo conversation, which is that we will never know how much we lost as a culture because of the predatory nature of awful men. Drew Dixon should have been as big as Russell Simmons, and the mind reels at what she would have done in the music industry over the last two decades.

She wasn’t allowed that because, according to her, Simmons’ lifetime of aggressive behavior reached its apex one night when he raped her. Years later, and after trauma amplified by going to another company only to allegedly be sexually threatened by L.A. Reid too, Dixon finds all of her trauma coming to the surface of her emotional well being as the #MeToo movement makes headlines. Rumors and allegations against Simmons appear like they may get buried, and Dixon has to decide if she wants to go public with her story. And she learns that she’s not alone.

“On the Record” isn’t just the story of a monster who saw every woman in his eyeline as an object, it’s a commentary on how men like Simmons feel entitled to be the way they are. Dick and Ziering aren’t afraid to look at a music culture that throws around words like “bitch” and “ho” with ease, and even take some of this into history and racial politics. Their film tries to unpack why the black community often seeks to defend the accused, noting that black male sexuality was used as a reason for hate crimes like lynching not that long ago in history, and so people are understandably defensive against mobs coming for their brothers. The film even brings up the case of Anita Hill, and how much we really should have believed her. Dixon even suggested after the screening that it’s possible none of them would be there if we had.

And yet Dick and Ziering never allow the “big picture” to overwhelm the human stories at the center of their film. It’s that balance between the personal story and the larger backdrop that makes them such brilliant filmmakers. They did it “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground” and this now makes for a trilogy about institutionalized violence against women. They also capture something about the #MeToo movement that no film has really accomplished yet: the courage it takes to come forward and how that changes a person. We’re with Dixon every step of the way as she grapples with what happens now. We’re a few years into #MeToo now and we need to start talking about what happens next, not just for the accusers who made themselves vulnerable but all of us. The first step to progress is listening. You need to listen to this movie.

Another highly-buzzed doc from Sundance 2020 is one of the most remarkable true crime films you’ll see all year, Emma Sullivan’s “Into the Deep,” which started as a profile piece about a rebellious maverick and became a study of a sociopath. Some of the structure here can be a bit unwieldy, but it’s a haunting movie overall, especially in some of the what-ifs it raises and how bluntly it drives home the point that monsters can often hide in plain sight.

Sullivan’s film started as a look at a charismatic inventor named Peter Madsen. The Danish celebrity started his own company, made up largely of young volunteers, and set about building things that most people don’t consider just making on their own, like a working submarine and a rocket that would someday take him into space. There aren’t a lot of amateur astronauts out there, and so it’s easy to see why people were drawn to Madsen, and Sullivan spends most of her time with the young people who worked day and night on these projects, excited at every new development. They had no idea why they’d be in a movie at Sundance.

On August 10, 2017, while Sullivan was making her film, Madsen took a journalist named Kim Wall out on a trip in his submarine. They disappeared. He was found on a broken ship a day later, but she was still missing. Sullivan cuts back and forth between those early days of confusion about Madsen’s team, as they keep hoping Wall will be found alive but realize with each day that it’s less and less likely, and that Peter’s story doesn’t make a lot of sense. And then Wall’s torso surfaces.

By the now, the story of what Peter Madsen did to Kim Wall is pretty well-known but Sullivan’s immediate, as-it-happens access offers a new appreciation of the world of a madman. Sullivan’s film even became evidence in the trial, as objects Madsen used to mutilate Wall can be seen in her film. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema just in its very existence – we don’t often see interviews with men filmed on the day they killed someone. And “Into the Deep” gains another terrifying angle when it becomes clear that Wall may not have been the intended victim. I didn’t fully take to the structure that cuts back and forth and think a more chronological version of this story, in which we really see the disillusionment of dreamers into witnesses, would have been even more powerful. Still, people are going to be talking about this from the minute it premieres on Netflix later this year. Keep an eye out for it.

A similarly stranger-than-fiction story unfolds in Ryan White’s Assassins,” another “can you believe it” story that I suspect will captivate people wherever they can see it. In this case, I found the filmmaking a little generic but I think that’s because White wants to get out of the way of this crazy true story as much as possible, letting the people closest to it tell it. He does place the tragic story of Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah in an interesting context about viral culture and everyone’s fifteen minutes of fame. For these two girls, the desire to be famous made them murderers.

At least that’s what their defense attorneys argue when the pair is charged in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un. On February 13, 2017, the two young women literally walked up behind Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur International Airport and smeared a deadly toxin on his face, killing him in an about an hour. They went downstairs, washed their hands, and left.

“Assassins” makes a very convincing case that the girls were tools in a complicated plot. They had been actresses in a series of prank videos for a few mysterious characters who promised fame and fortune. They had completed a few pranks and they thought they were wiping face cream on a stranger. Get a laugh, make their bosses happy, go viral. And then they were arrested for murder. As the men who masterminded this plot sunk off into the night, two poor young women were tried for a crime they didn't understand they had committed.

“Assassins” spends a lot of time making its case for innocence, and it’s hard to walk away from it and not think that Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong were victims too. And the people truly responsible for this murder weren’t even put on trial. The sad truth is that all three of these very different documentaries emerge from a world in which women are disposable, whether they’re hip-hop moguls, journalists, or wannabe viral stars. Taken as whole, they’re a snapshot of a world that needs to change. And filmmaking that exposes this toxic patriarchy is a step in the right direction.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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