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The Most Riveting Docuseries at Sundance Grappled With the U.S.' Thorny Legacy

This year, the real gems in the festival's episodic programming were the docuseries that illuminated their subjects.
  • God Save Texas: La Frontera (Photo: Sundance)
    God Save Texas: La Frontera (Photo: Sundance)

    “Film” may literally be in the title of the Sundance Film Festival, but the event has also premiered a variety of impressive episodic work over the years, and 2024’s lineup was no exception. Festival organizers put together an annual pilot showcase featuring narrative coming-of-age stories both magical and relatable. This year, the Spanish showrunners behind HBO’s Veneno, Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo, released a wild first episode of La Mesías, which blends low-budget aliens with intergenerational trauma and superb acting for a show that promises to surprise.

    But the real gems of Sundance’s 2024 episodic programming were the docuseries reckoning with recent U.S. history, which ranged from the deeply compelling to those bordering on fan art.

    Better Angels: The Gospel According to Tammy Faye falls into the hero-worship category. The documentary, which Faye’s son Jay Bakker consulted on, features interviews with friends and Jessica Chastain (as if playing Tammy Faye Messner makes her an expert) to offer a further redemptive arc for its subject. It spends a lot of time on Faye’s good works — including, memorably interviewing and sympathizing with AIDS patients back when the disease was still called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) — and makes only a passing mention of prosperity gospel.

    Likewise, director Michael John Warren’s Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza offers a mostly rosy view of the festival, highlighting how it helped make “alternative” mainstream with only the lightest of critiques. Were the early festival lineups, featuring just one woman-led group each on their large rosters, part of a broader, misogynistic organizing ethos? Lolla says yes but doesn’t ask its nostalgic viewers to think too much about it. The same goes for how the festival handles race.

    Lolla’s most telling insight is almost accidental. It occurs when the three-part series (the first two episodes of which were available to stream at Sundance) features the activists invited to set up booths at the festival. The issues they’re advocating for — gun control, abortion access, the environment — have arguably worsened in the 20 years since Lollapalooza premiered. Lolla presents the fact that these activists were part of the festival as a sign of the event’s boundary-pushing ethos. But the real takeaway is just how far we have to go.

    It was the other docuseries at Sundance that really dug into how many of those same issues affect real people. God Save Texas does exactly that, taking abstract political concepts and making them personal. Based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, each of the three episodes is told from the perspective of a different director — Richard Linklater, Alex Stapleton, and Iliana Sosa — as they return to their hometowns to explore how those places exemplify a hotly debated issue. Linklater tackles capital punishment and the prison industrial complex, Stapleton explores oil production in Houston and its ties to environmental racism, and Sosa looks at how immigration has politicized day-to-day life in El Paso, particularly for its many Latino residents. Sometimes this connection, particularly in Linklater’s episode, can give the series an aww-shucks feel, but mostly, the convention works.

    Sosa’s “La Frontera” episode is particularly affecting, exploring how the Mexican and Mexican-American residents of El Paso are dealing with the aftermath of the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart. Gentrification and the devaluing of the town’s Mexican and increasingly Central American neighborhoods further complicate their lives. The episode is a clear testament to what it’s like to live through a policy debate, day in and day out, at the border.

    Conbody VS Everybody similarly exemplifies what it means to be caught in our country’s unjust systems. This docuseries by Academy Award nominee Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) follows Coss Marte, a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur who runs Conbody, a NYC Lower East Side gym. First caught up in the criminal justice system at just 13, Marte spent a lot of time locked up. While there, he started exercising, jogging in the yard when possible and doing intensive body-weight exercises in solitary confinement.

    His workouts transformed his body and he then taught them to other inmates. Seeing the power of the change in himself and others, Marte worked as a personal trainer upon release, eventually growing his business to a full-fledged gym, employing other formerly incarcerated individuals as trainers and gaining the attention of the likes of Men’s Health and giving two TEDx talks.

    Conbody VS Everybody opens on this point in Marte’s life, then follows him and his close-knit group of employees as they strive for personal and economic growth. The docuseries contains heartbreaking stories, like that of Syretta Wright, who was incarcerated at sixteen and joined Conbody after serving 22 years. She has so much to learn about the world “outside” but consistently shines as a trainer, knowing when to push her clients, when to reveal parts of herself, and when to play a role.

    Another member of the Conbody staff loses his son to the street violence that sent so many of the Conbody staff to prison in the first place. Watching that funeral is enough to make even the most dispassionate viewer shed a tear.

    Much of Conbody VS Everybody’s run time is spent discussing the need for “second chances,” something each of the subjects can attest to. But the truth is, many people in their circumstances don’t get a first chance, caught up in poverty and pain as kids. Some die. Some become debilitated by drug addiction. Others spend their lives in (and briefly out) of prison — as the series is quick to remind viewers, the recidivism rate in the U.S. is more than 50% in just a few years.

    Marte is working to change that for himself and the people he employs. He doesn’t just give his trainers a job; he mentors them, serving as a case manager of sorts. The docuseries follows him connecting employees to other services in the area, like housing groups, and supporting people emotionally, whether it’s attending a funeral or building a community of support.

    Watching Conbody VS Everybody, it’s easy to wish that Marte could scale and employ more of the people who write to him from prison, looking for work. But Marte’s dedication, his hope, and his heart aren’t so easily replicable. He could teach others the workout, but how could he make sure that trainers at other sites were getting the mentorship and support that is so crucial to curtailing recidivism?

    The mass incarceration of Black and brown people has no easy answers. But it does have a real human cost. And that cost, including the difficult path to redemption, is what Conbody VS Everybody so artfully explores. It’s a best-in-class docuseries that more pointedly and poignantly accomplishes what Sundance’s other episodic offerings are also trying to do: reveal an aspect of life or history in the U.S. that needs a second look.

    Taken together, Sundance 2024’s episodic category shows a country grappling with its legacy, with long-standing injustices, and the narratives, celebrity or otherwise, that personify them. The level of filmmaking is uneven across these docuseries, but they still manage to reveal the types of stories we’re comfortable watching and which we’ve hidden beneath a pile of rhetoric, despite the ongoing human cost.

    Too often, the people affected by mass incarceration, border policies, capital punishment, environmental racism, and more are erased by our storytelling machine. They may be statistics on the news, but their hopes and dreams, their family connections and friendships, their lived experiences don’t make it to the screen. Ostensibly, telling these important but often overlooked stories is one of the goals of Sundance, with its focus on independent media.

    It’s not a rosy view of the nation or its legacy. But the 2024 Sundance docuseries show that there is hope, if we can change our unjust systems by listening to those who are affected by them.

    A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture.

    TOPICS: Sundance Film Festival, Veneno, Alex Stapleton, Coss Marte, Iliana Sosa, Javier Ambrossi, Javier Calvo, John Warren, Richard Linklater, Tammy Faye Messner