By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 4:31 AM
Washington wasn't represented just by fiction films at Sundance this year. National Geographic filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion premiered their feature debut, "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," about a notorious war lord in Liberia who, as an evangelical preacher named Joshua Blahyi, embarks on a journey of confronting his victims to ask for forgiveness. (He earned the moniker Butt Naked because he and his soldiers completely disrobed before attacking their victims .)
The film, five years in the making, has sparked debate as to Blahyi's sincerity, the nature of evil and the possibility of change. "It's not a film where we're giving the answers," said Strauss. "The issues that are addressed are not the kind of issues where either one of us knows the answer."
"The Redemption" was part of a documentary lineup that included such HBO documentaries as "Reagan," an evenhanded consideration of the 40th president, and "Project Nim," a sobering tale of a chimp who was adopted and reared as a human in the 1970s. One of the most popular nonfiction films of the festival was also about inter-species communication: "Buck," about real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, earned raves from audiences and will be released later this year by the Sundance Selects and Rainbow Releasing.
Issues of law and order were at the center of at least three documentaries that enjoyed supportive audiences here: "If a Tree Falls," Marshall Curry's engrossing portrait of an extreme environmentalist, raised questions about the line between civil disobedience, terrorism and proportional justice, and Peter D. Richardson's shattering "How to Die in Oregon" (also from HBO) provided a candid glimpse of terminally ill people choosing to end their own lives thanks to Oregon's die-with-dignity legislation.
Focusing on another issue entirely, Oregon lawyer and first-time filmmaker Susan Saladoff made a stunning debut with the lively, lucid "Hot Coffee," about the spin behind such notions as tort reform, frivolous lawsuits and "jackpot justice."
With its energetic pacing, bold visuals and the kind of narrative that sends audiences out of the theater thinking in a brand-new way about something they thought they understood, "Hot Coffee" deserves the kind of release enjoyed by "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Food, Inc." As for filmgoers interested in the lighter side of life, there's always "Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure," Matthew Bate's excavation of a piece of 1980s pop folklore, wherein San Francisco roommates surreptitiously recorded their feuding next-door neighbors and distributed the stories by way of the cassette-zine circuit.
As the portrait of pre-Web viral culture, "Shut Up Little Man!" offers a colorful glimpse into a bygone, handmade era. And it skillfully limns the morphology of a scene, from creation and discovery to co-optation and destruction. As of this writing, "Shut Up Little Man!" hadn't been acquired for distribution - but, as the film's celebration of the do-it-yourself ethos suggests, that shouldn't keep it from audiences for long.