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Sundance Diary, Day 4: The Day The FBI Came To Park City

Three documentaries on Syria and a day in Sundance’s virtual-reality tent

To prove that life is like a Tom Clancy thriller, the FBI came to Park City to investigate a cyberattack that shut down ticketing on Sundance’s first Saturday, one of the busiest days of the festival. The press office sent out an email insisting that screenings would proceed as planned, adding, “No further information about the attack is available at this time.” The Women’s March was that morning, but the shutdown felt more directed. Did the festival have enemies? Did the films?

I heard whispers that the FBI interviewed the teams behind three documentaries on Syria: Last Men in Aleppo, about the aid workers who stayed behind to save civilians; Cries from Syria, by the Academy Award–nominated director of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom; and City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to the fantastic Mexican drug war doc Cartel Land, which tracks the citizen journalists risking their lives to combat ISIS’s propaganda only to then find themselves battling neo-Nazis in Berlin.

Each film shares an offscreen bogeyman: Russia, who propped up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad with military tacticians and fighter jets. A Sundance spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter that they didn’t “have any reason to believe the cyberattack was targeted towards a specific film.” But the spotlight pointed straight at Bryan Fogel’s Icarus, a doc that directly implicates Vladimir Putin in the 2014 Olympics doping scandal. Icarus had premiered the night before to wild applause and was scheduled to play again during the afternoon of the crash.

When Fogel began Icarus three and a half years ago, he wasn’t looking to investigate an international conspiracy. He’s an amateur bicyclist who wanted to make the Super Size Me of steroids. In the first half-hour of the film, he stabs himself with testosterone for months to prepare for a grueling seven-day race. Can Fogel cheat his way into the top 10 without failing his drug tests, like Lance Armstrong did about 200 times? He’ll need help from an expert. An American scientist connects him to Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. And if you think it’s weird that the man in charge of catching steroid users would agree to help Fogel cheat, we’re just getting started.

At first, Rodchenkov and Fogel are just two goofballs cracking jokes about urine samples over Skype. But this funny, ambling ride careens off a cliff when the World Anti-Doping Agency accuses Rodchenkov’s lab of faking urine tests when Russia hosted the Sochi Olympics. Putin wanted to win, and he made it clear that he didn’t care how. That winter, the country won 13 gold medals, boosting Putin’s approval rating to 82 percent and giving him the political goodwill to invade Crimea the very next month.

None of this should have affected Fogel’s small stunt. Except Rodchenkov becomes the fall guy for a conspiracy that involved hundreds of athletes, doctors, bureaucrats, and former KGB agents — plus, of course, himself, his boss, and his big boss, Putin, who doesn’t want underlings ratting him out, especially when the International Olympic Committee is threatening to ban Russia from competing in the 2016 summer games in Rio.

Rodchenkov panics. He thinks Moscow is having him watched. Fogel buys him a plane ticket to Los Angeles, and within weeks of Rodchenkov’s arrival, two of his colleagues mysteriously die. To save his own life, Rodchenkov disappears into the Witness Protection Program. But before he does, he confesses everything about Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme.

“There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance,” says Rodchenkov. “It is the same: Orwell, 1984.” (Amazon sold out of 1984 this week, an unprecedented sales boom for a novel that’s nearly 70 years old.) Icarus’s second half is structured around George Orwell’s portrait of totalitarianism, which helps Rodchenkov make sense of his former life in Russia. The fit is perfect and strangely beautiful. As the scientist connects Orwell’s “doublespeak” to the mentality that convinced him that his job was to prosecute and promote doping, Fogel cuts to an image of twin synchronized divers falling in slow motion.

Putin dismissed Rodchenkov’s accusations as “impossible,” despite a WADA investigation that proved the scientist was telling the truth. Then the president went on the attack, insisting that foreign countries and the media were out to crush Russia’s pride. A year ago, we might have been shocked by Putin’s bold lies. Today, Icarus feels like the playbook for the new world. Greece gave us both the Olympics and democracy. From rigged bobsledding to rigged elections, Putin has poisoned our trust in both.

So I tromped across the ice to Sundance’s New Frontiers tent to disappear into virtual reality. I slid on goggles and earphones and plunged into fresh nightmares. First, I dove into Yasmin Elayat’s Zero Days VR and was engulfed by the true story of another cyberattack called — no fooling — “Olympic Games.” Zero Days VR, inspired by Alex Gibney’s 2016 documentary of the same name, escorted me through an Iranian nuclear facility where I watched how malware triggered uranium centrifuges to explode. Radioactive fragments shattered around me like hail. Then I floated above a computer chip as the squirming virus Stuxnet (designed by the United States and Israel) spread its contagion. I felt small and powerless, overwhelmed by a form of warfare that I couldn’t understand. Point taken, Elayat.

Three stalls away in Rachel Rossin’s The Sky Is a Gap, I opened my eyes inside of an apartment that had just been bombed. Papers, books, avocados, hot-sauce packets, and DVDs of Avatar hovered in the sky. The explosion was frozen. When I leaned forward, time advanced and the projectiles followed their arc. When I leaned back, they rewound. Mostly, I stumbled into walls — once out of panic when I thought I was trapped inside of a refrigerator. No wonder Rossin dreams of staging the whole thing on a football field, with hundreds of blinded people bumbling around like debris.

Across the hall, Saschka Unseld’s Through You was a ballet about a breakup. We are the cad, and the film starts with a brunette raging at us in her bedroom. Then we disappear and, like a ghost, watch her fall in love, move homes, and grow old with someone else. Yet the woman, now played by a gray-haired dancer, clung so tightly to her broken heart that, in the final scene, we’re back in her bedroom as she soaks our old mattress with gasoline and lights a match. I knew the flames were fake. Of course they were fake. The temperature was 16 degrees and my feet were numb. But as the fire spread up the walls, covered the ceiling, and blocked the exit, my lungs felt like they couldn’t get any oxygen. I nearly tore off my mask. Well done.

Unseld also made my favorite VR piece of the festival: Dear Angelica, an animated letter from a girl to her dead mother, a red-haired movie star who played dragon-slayers and astronauts. Their story is drawn in thick, hand-painted lines that stretch out to cover infinity and then shrink to make you lean in. I jumped behind a convertible while Angelica, in character, fired a pistol at a crook. Then I crept up to an image of the daughter’s bed as it floated in the darkness. It was as small as the palm of my hand. I wanted to protect her. When I walked out, quiet and shaken, the man in the room next to me was crying underneath his glasses. “This creates a new problem for VFX,” he said. “Tears.” The operator nodded. He’d seen several people break down.

Thank god for Tyler Hurd’s three-minute giggler, Chocolate. Make that “thank the cat gods,” actually, since Hurd’s music video takes place in a shiny pink, purple, and gold desert where tribal dancers in golden cat masks praise you, an insectoid alien thing with gun-hands that shoot smiling kittens into the air. Bobbing blue cat heads sing their approval and, at the climax, two giant, fat felines pop champagne. I tried not to dance — there were people watching — but no luck. I gave in and shook my ass, and after I learned I could fire kittens at my own face, I burst out laughing.

“I want to hit people’s happiness,” said Hurd. I needed it. Afterward, I tried my last VR experience, Mindshow, an app that lets you act out and film cartoon characters and send the scenes back and forth to your friends to edit. Is this just a way to let teenagers virtually make out in the middle of the night? “That’s our goal, actually,” a designer joked. So I stepped into his world and played both halves of a confrontation between a crash-landed space captain and a green alien. As the alien, I growled and stomped my feet. But when I became the captain, suddenly I’d had enough of anger. I opened up my arms to the monster and begged, “Please, just give me a hug.”