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Best of Sundance London - Part 2

Two antipodal documentaries exploring human pain and the search for identity opened at Sundance London yesterday

Despite taking place at antipodal points of the world, Running from Crazy and Blood Brother are both unpretentious explorations of pain, whose protagonists struggle towards a personal truth, as well as belonging and love. After dissatisfactory childhoods, they are driven to seek out second families, learning on the way that identity, as well as a true home, is not always given, but often earned, self-forged.

Cathartic, confessional, in Barbara Kopple’s international premiere of Running from Crazy, Mariel Hemingway confronts a legacy of genius and madness in a family that rivals the Kennedys in terms of notorious tragedy. Uncomfortable reunions with her first husband and older sister Muffet simultnaeously reveal her vulnerability as well as a dimension of hidden tenacity. Interspersed with family footage, and Mariel’s visits to the Hemingway house and gravesite, the former child-star of Woody Allen’s Manhattan recounts her drug addictions as a teenager, sexual abuse, and her destructive sibling rivalry with supermodel Margaux, who killed herself on the anniversary of her famed grandfather´s death.

Against the pristine backdrop of Idaho wilderness Mariel now inhabits, its hard to believe that this 50-year-old woman with windswept hair and bronzed cheekbones, entertaining her equally-stunning daughters with  trampolined backflips (as she was never allowed to be playful as a child) ever experienced crushing insecurities, fear for appearing stupid because she never finished high school. Not without a quick sense of self-irony, she is the first to admit that she considers herself waspy, privileged: ”If I wasn’t me, I would think the same. But you know what? I’m scared too.” Paradoxically, though pushed early into an spotlight she never wanted, Mariel grew up, like her father Jack, in the all-looming shadow of  ”Papa” Hemingway, making the two feel ”unseen” and insignificant. In closing, with great humor and compassion, Mariel insists that she doesnt believe in perfection, that ”perfection is in the chaos, in the journey.”

Blood Brother, winner of the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Prize, made even hardened film critics weep, not out of pity, but because they found themselves genuinely moved.  ”Rocky Anna”’ (meaning ”big brother”), a successful graphic designer from America, one day decides to up and sell all his belongings in order to relentlessly dedicate himself to the care of HIV-infected orphans in India. What saves Blood Brother from devolving into another maudlin, hippie cliche is that it is shot from the wary outsider’s perspective of Rocky’s childhood best friend, Steve Hoover, who is clearly not a believer. When Rocky turns his back on the American dream and the finer things a western lifestyle proffers, Steve doesn't understand, doesn't want to. Reluctantly shadowing Rocky all day in a country where the in-your-face spectacle of life and death can’t be turned off with a click of a remote control button, Steve expresses apprehension about his becoming HIV-infected.

No Mother Theresa figure himself, Rocky often displays sparks of impatience and rage, fueled by abandonment issues and memories of an abused childhood, missguidedly attempting to quick-fix the kids’ problems with Domino’s Pizza a bit too often. But for someone once considered mentally reatrded in school, Rocky is remarkably articulate about his need to anchor his restless life, to find sufficient purpose and meaning beyond the pre-packaged values and extended network of careers and relationships he abandoned in America: ”It was easy to disconnect.” Even if it means sorely testing his personal limits by inhabiting a sort of hell on earth with no running water, where seemingly healthy children he cultivates close bonds with die overnight like flies, and the narrow-minded villagers staunchly disapprove of his marriage interests in a local Indian girl. Refusing to accept Rocky as one of their own, they even blame him for the death of an ill youngster en route to the hospital on his moped, after, according to tradition, she spends days lying in a temple without food. What hits hardest is Blood Brother´s giving spirit in our profit-driven, hyper self-obsessed society. Long after the doctors have given up on one of his hospitalised orphans, Rocky tirelessly continues to clean and oil his wounds round the clock; miraculously, he is the only child in his ward to survive.