PARK CITY, UTAH: “If you continue this kinda shit, like Ruby Ridge and Waco, this is what’s gonna happen.” Those chilling words, a threat from the mouth of bomber Timothy McVeigh, end the pre-title sequence of Barak Goodman’s Oklahoma City; the opening credits that follow run under close-ups of one of those string-and-thumbtack cork-boards, so popular on FBI shows and mob movies and crazy people’s dens. Goodman’s camera tracks with the string, moving from smaller incidents of government conflict with fringe groups into this earth-shaking one, and the movie operates under the same M.O. When McVeigh’s truck bomb destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people (including 19 children), it seemed to most an inconceivable act, an out-of-nowhere act of violence from a lone nut. But in all such tragedies, context is key, and Oklahoma City draws those lines – not just to events before April 19, 1995, but to the world after it.
The 1993 standoff at Ruby Ridge and the following year’s conflagration at Waco are, indeed, the two key flashpoints (or, as they’re dubbed in on-screen text, “The Spark” and “The Flame”), but Goodman’s film provides an even fuller picture: the rise, in the 1980s, of the Aryan Nations and other extremist groups; the prominence of the novel The Turner Diaries as their key wish-fulfillment text; the activities of “The Order” (including the murder of talk radio host Alan Berg). And the film doesn’t just consider the events at Waco (though they’re explained carefully and thoroughly) – Goodman conveys how that lengthy confrontation was reframed and sold by the extremist movement, and how it coupled with the timing of the anti-gun Brady Bill to accelerate their cause and increase the memberships and prominence of militia groups.
Goodman structures the film ingeniously, using the Oklahoma City bombing as a starting point that he keeps circling back to – putting these acts up against each other and weighing the chillingly disproportionate response, while using archival footage and first-person testimonials to give a palpable sense of what it was like to be on that scene, in that aftermath. Yet the most sobering footage in Oklahoma City may not be the harrowing accounts of the daycare discovery or the wrenching description of the “makeshift morgue” on the sidewalk outside it; it is the explanation that while the bombing wasn’t a conspiracy, McVeigh did not act alone. “He was the creation of the white supremacist movement,” we’re told, a movement filled working class whites who felt left behind, “all of them looking for someone to blame,” and landing on the federal government. And as we glance towards Washington D.C. this week, one can’t help but wonder if they decided it made more sense to just bomb that government from the inside.
There’s a extraordinary scene, late in Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest, of a very ordinary event. Christine’A Rainey and her teenage daughter P.J. are discussing their meager paychecks, their considerable expenses, and their frustration over the gulf between them. This is a pressing, every-minute-of-every-day concern for so many Americans, but it’s not something we see all that often in movies, fiction or non. Quest is a film with a bit of surface flash — the family’s patriarch Christopher is an aspiring music producer/promoter — but that element aside, this is very much a portrait of a regular family. Regular, yet seldom seen in mass media.
Director/cinematographer Olshefski spent eight years, from 2008 to 2015, with the Rainey family, from the nuptials of Christopher (aka Quest) and Christine’A (Ma Quest) through their family’s trials, tribulations, and tragedies. Quest makes a strong case for this kind of long-lead filmmaking; when the camera is around for that kind of time, subjects forget it’s there, and it thus begins to capture private, unguarded moments. It gets personal, and their tragedies become ours.
Unexpectedly, it ends up being as much P.J.’s story as her parents’: a brush with death, her rehab and recovery, and then her coming out. Around that time, we see an argument between the parents, about Christopher not “letting her be a girl” when she was growing up — battling over who’s to “blame” for who she is. It’s a scene that challenges our sympathies, but it’s honest, and Quest is certainly that. One of the best edits comes when the film cuts straight from that paycheck conversation to the parents watching one of Trump’s notorious “What do you have to lose?” speeches. “He doesn’t know how we live,” she objects, and that turn of phrase returns towards the end of the film, as Quest explains how their lives are going on: “That’s just how we live.” And that becomes the credo of this quietly remarkable movie.
“Aw yeah, motherfucker!” crows the brave hunter, after the crocodile has been dragged from the river, bound, and presented for him to kill. Big man; I’d like to see how he’d do without the help. But that’s the job of the “canned hunting” industry, a big business catering to status and machismo, and it’s the primary subject of Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy, a thoroughly upsetting yet surprisingly thoughtful exploration of a current conundrum: Animals on the brink of endangerment are being bred and raised, and the numbers are up. But many are bred to be killed, or at least to have their valuable parts harvested. This odd marriage of hunting expeditions and conservatism (quotes optional) is a challenging subject, and makes for a tricky film.
As with any big business, the commodification of animals can be jarring; John Hume, the rhino breeder who becomes the most complicated character, will say something like “The Canadian client came over, and he was very happy to harvest such a beautiful trophy,” and the distance allowed by the language is unnerving. But then, not two seconds later, he’s tearing up about how these animals “can become like a friend” and “it’s hard to let them go.” And then they’ll cut to the murder of an elephant by some grinning yee-haw, and it’s fucking barbaric.
Trophy‘s cameras tag along on the hunts, talk to the relevant parties, and dive into the long history and psychological explanation of trophy hunting. And the filmmakers occasionally toss up some startling numbers – the decreases in these animals’ populations, the numbers legally hunted and illegally poached. But the film insists on looking beyond those numbers, to questions of empathy with locals, to the financial teeter-totter these countries are trapped on, to the realization that there is no skeleton key to fix this problem. It’s an emotional issue that requires nuanced discussion and solutions, and kudos to Trophy for giving them their proper weight.
All three of these bracing documentaries, either explicitly or implicitly, spoke to the events outside of Park City during the week of the Sundance Film Festival, and they were far from the only ones; documentaries like Nobody Speak and An Inconvenient Sequel, experiments like Manifesto, historical stories like Mudbound and Gook, even seemingly light comedies like The Polka King vibrated with echoes of the rise of Donald Trump and the terrifying implications of the years ahead. It almost grew tiresome, in post-screening Q&As, to note connections both direct and accidental.
And yet the week also offered plenty of what movies do best: escape. There was no shortage of pure entertainments this year, and light comedy/dramas like The Big Sick, The Incredible Jessica James, Landline, and Person to Person (and even darker ones like Ingrid Goes West and Golden Exits) allowed festivalgoers a respite, a couple of hours of not worrying and despairing, only to pull out their cell phones during the end credits and discover some new horror. So went the week.
I suspect the immediate future — presuming there is one HAHAHAHAHAHA — will proceed along the same lines. We will seek movies that transport us from our woes for at least an afternoon or an evening, though some of the tropes of said entertainments (dystopian futures, maniacal super-villains, unlivable hellscapes) might not be quit as “escapist” as they used to be. But we will also see films with something to say about our new reality, films designed to reflect, provoke, and/or inspire. Filmmakers need to feel that responsibility, and live up to it.
Or, as they say in Manifesto, “In this time of change, the role of the artist can only be that of the revolutionary.” Goddamn right.