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Sundance 2023: Beyond Utopia, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, Victim/Suspect

Documentaries have long been an essential part of the Sundance experience. Just from last year alone, four of the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary of the year can boast being a Park City premiere: "All That Breathes," "Fire of Love," "A House Made of Splinters," and "Navalny." I didn't get to see as many docs this year as I would have liked, but I did see one that feels instantly essential, a harrowing look at a country that commits human rights violations on a daily basis, and how hard it is to escape from it.

Madeleine Gavin's "Beyond Utopia" opens with the information that nothing that follows includes recreation. Everything in the film happened, including hidden camera footage of a family trying to defect from North Korea, a process that involves crossing a guarded river, climbing a mountain, and then traveling through China, Vietnam, and Laos—three countries where you can be captured and killed—to the relative safety of Thailand. At any point on this journey, you can be captured not only by authorities but by everyday people who will then sell you to traffickers. I've rarely seen anything as genuinely harrowing as what happens to the family this film follows over this impossible trek, including children and an elderly woman who is so indoctrinated by North Korean brainwashing she questions what they're even doing.

To provide context for this personal story, Gavin cuts back to successful defectors who fill in details on what life is like in North Korea. While the propaganda of North Korea is pretty widely known, it feels like much of the actual life-on-the-ground details of life in the country have been underreported. At one point, an expert suggests that the country as a whole commits the most human rights violations since Nazi Germany. That's happening right now. People die in the street from hunger and disease. People who oppose the government are publicly executed. And it's all under an incredible curtain of misinformation that allows no material from outside North Korea to get to its people.

"Beyond Utopia" is a human interest story and a historical document of what's happening in a powerful country. Gavin strikes a perfect balance between the two, profiling a pastor who risks his own life to rescue people from tyranny. The result is a documentary that's both a big-picture study of oppression and a story of individual acts of courage. Great documentaries often balance the personal and the political, finding a way to teach through the stories of relatable human beings. We come to know and care about the people in "Beyond Utopia" and, by extension, all of those struggling to find a better life around the world.

A very different kind of oppression is detailed in Nicole Newnham's interesting "The Disappearance of Shere Hite": That of the female perspective on sexuality. Newnham unveils the story of a groundbreaking woman in the research into sexuality, one who should be studied alongside Kinsey and Johnson & Johnson, but who was diminished through cheap tactics on daytime talk shows. The footage of Hite defending her research on shows like "Geraldo" and a stunning taping of Oprah in which the audience was made of entirely men makes for a riveting time capsule of fragile masculinity. Hite's research revealed that men didn't really know how to satisfy women, and that many married women were going outside of the home to get their needs met. Men freaked out.

The Hite Report was published in 1976 and was the product of anonymous survey responses, a better form than phone call surveys—it's easier to tell the truth about tricky subjects on an anonymous form than to someone on the phone when your partner might even be listening in the same room. Despite having relatively small sample sizes that would earn her criticism, Hite's research should have been taken more seriously. It's a shame that what feels like genuine fear around the questions she raised led to her erasure.

"The Disappearance of Shere Hite" deftly captures a fascinating intersection in American history between the Summer of Love and the Conservation backlash of the '80s. Hite was a successful model who used her connections in a way that should have opened doors, but there were men (and sometimes women) eager to close them. We like to think we're open-minded about sexuality, but only when our definition fits in the box we know. Watching "Shere Hite," I wondered what would have happened to her if her studies had hit the landscape today. My concern is that it probably wouldn't have gone that much differently.

Finally, there's one of those troubling docs in which the subject matter is undeniably important to discuss, but the execution of the filmmaking is problematic at best. "Victim/Suspect" suffers from the Netflix brand of overproduction, looking just a little too flashy and sinking everything with voiceover and interview sound bites that have been scripted to death. I desperately want the issue at the core of "Victim/Suspect" to be a larger part of the national conversation so a deeply flawed system can get closer to being repaired, but just because a film is about something "important" doesn't make it good.

One of the problems is that Nancy Schwartzman chooses to center neither of the words in her title, telling her story mostly from the POV of Rae de Leon, a reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting. She has uncovered a disturbing pattern of rape victims being accused and even charged for filing false reports. It's an outraging practice, one that reveals cops who seem eager to blame the victim because it's easier than actually doing an investigation. Practices like "ruse," wherein cops are allowed to lie to victims—like telling them there's security camera footage that contradicts their report—are infuriating examples of abuses of power. Still, I kept questioning why so much of this story was told through the eyes of a journalist instead of the victims themselves. Schwartzman's film is at its most powerful when it allows people to bravely talk about being victimized twice: by their attacker and then by a deeply broken system.

If the drop of "Victim/Suspect" on Netflix later this year makes anyone in a position of power think twice about how they use it, it's done some good. But, as a film, it's consistently frustrating in structure an execution. It's the classic Roger Ebert quote: "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." The "what" here is vital to a functioning, safe society. It's the "how" that I wish was better.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing 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 GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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