Must-See Documentaries from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

Most people think of the Sundance Film Festival as Hollywood glamour and celebrities. And it is during the first few days. But that crowd quickly disperses and the majority of the festival becomes fans and independent filmmakers. From the Starbucks to the grocery store, there are producers and directors rubbing elbows with film buffs.

The films are mostly documentaries covering all the major world issues – with a sprinkling of dramatic films or animated shorts in between. And this is the Sundance I love. A place where I can dig into an issue for two hours and leave the theater feeling smarter. My past moments of enlightenment have included democracy in Africa to nuclear meltdowns in Pennsylvania.

And with that in mind I present to you three documentaries from Sundance 2013. They cover a revolution in Egypt, intelligence operations in Israel, and Special Operations in the U.S. Military. One is even an Academy-award nominee. Needless to say, they are all awesome and worth watching.

The Square

The revolution is on. The people are protesting in the streets and cameras are rolling – the revolution will be televised. This is Egypt and it is January 2011. The government is the enemy and they control everything. The only thing you have is the square, Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

Such is the subject of a moving new documentary by Jehane Noujam, called The Square. The film covers the revolution from day one and continues for two years. The stars are the revolutionaries themselves, each with a different story. One is an Islamist, another a famous actor, and thousands of other students, musicians, lawyers, and more.

It’s a touching story that will remind you of the freedom we enjoy in America. How we fought for it and treasure it, while millions around the world don’t have it. The rise to democracy is not easy and not without bloodshed, but here is a country – a people – battling the odds. Taking on tanks and guns, religion and authority, torture and prison.

The revolution is on.

The Gatekeepers

Forty-six years ago, Israel won a major war and moved their armies into the West Bank and Gaza Strip – and they never left. The army is now an occupation force. One hated by the Palestinians who live there. So much that they attack the Israeli soldiers with assassinations, bombs, rebellions, and more.

To quell these disruptions, the government intelligence agency, Shin Bet, stepped in and soon became the most effective counter-insurgency force in the world. They are masters at capture, torture, infiltration, and all the deceptive arts – including killing. But their success has only upped the ante in these occupied territories. The Palestinians continue to find new ways to fight back – the latest involves the explosion of a crowded bus, not in the occupied territory, but in the heart of Israel itself.

It’s tragic story told to us by six former chiefs of the Shin Bet in the documentary, The Gatekeepers – nominated for an Academy Award.

These chiefs are the equivalent of our Director of the FBI, but the stories they tell are far different from the experience of a U.S. government agent (G-man). For starters, no member of the Shin Bet is ever revealed to the public – except for these chiefs. They are the only link we have to this mysterious agency. And so the insight these men give, on both the moral failings of their agency and their own evil actions, is incredibly powerful.

Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars is a captivating documentary about a secret United States military force – the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This cadre of militia has an incredible worldwide reach and uses everything from nighttime raids to cruise missiles. It strikes fear in our enemies and has helped turn the tide in the war on terror. They were even the force that took out Osama Bin Laden.

But there are downsides to this “superhero” force. Behind all the high-tech equipment and physical training is a complete lack of transparency. What happens when they make a mistake and kill the wrong person?

The movie delves into this issue when a reporter discovers a strange story. During a nighttime raid, a group of American soldiers killed three pregnant women, removed the bullets used to kill them, then left. Nothing has ever been revealed about this horrible incident and all investigations have been rebuffed. One reporter even claimed he was attacked for publishing a report on it.

Few issues are as current and provocative. President Obama defended this force in his recent State of the Union speech, while the Wall Street Journal is reporting that senior government officials are calling for escalated attacks by JSOC. And yet most of this is escaping the public eye. Which makes this film a must-see for all Americans.

About Steven Mandzik:
I'm a geek at large who blogs at http://1x57.com
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