Film Festival Today

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A Documentary Deluge

Written by: FFT Webmaster | September 29th, 2011

For reasons that are both clear yet still mysterious, a deluge of documentaries is currently awash on film screens. Not that I am complaining. The increased prominence and box office clout of documentaries is something to celebrate. Relegated for too many years to the small screen, a number of pioneering documentaries over the past decade have demonstrated that they have a large potential cross-over audience. The reason for this swell of non-fiction films has a practical backdrop: in order to qualify for Oscar consideration, a feature documentary film must have played in a legitimate theater house for at least one week in the key cities of New York and Los Angeles. This hard and fast rule, which has been debated by the producers of worthy documentaries slated for the small screen, still holds, and that may be the reason that we are seeing such a seasonal outpouring of the format.

Truth be told, most of the films will not make much of a box office dent. The competition is simply too fierce with the studios and independent distributors holding back on their “serious” fare in the Fall months for a positioning in the awards season. The audiences who flock to those films are also the potential ones for the documentaries, so the battle for audience eyeballs and theater placement is rather fierce. However, if the main point of opening one’s doc in New York and Los Angeles in this critical period means that the film has a chance of an Oscar nomination, it certainly seems worth the gamble. In the meantime, lovers of the non-fiction form have a multitude of cinema options.

To date, the most successful documentary film by far is CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, the first 3-D film by German maverick director Werner Herzog that explores, with a poetic intensity hard to find in any fiction film, the pre-historic cave paintings discovered in abandoned mines in the south of France. The film, which has not been off screens since its debut in May, has amassed nearly $6 million at the domestic box office, which is a very impressive figure for a documentary film. Not only has the film captured a loyal audience but figures indicate that there are return visits to see it more than once….quite rare for a non-music documentary. With its imaginative use of 3-D technology and its compelling storyline, the film is one of several arts-oriented docs currently on big screens. Add to this such films as BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE, the documentary debut of actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport about the world music group A Tribe Called Quest; LIMELIGHT, a profile of the rise and fall of decadent 1980s nightclub owner Peter Gatien, who introduced a drug-fueled techno ambience to New York City nightlife; THE WEIRD WORLD OF BLOWFLY, a breezy look at the 1970s R&B songwriter whose party albums were masterful parodic rhymes of sex, scatology and social unrest; PEARL JAM TWENTY, director Cameron Crowe’s atmospheric love letter to the influential American rock band two decades after its primal formation; and WHITE WASH, a fascinating look at the history and sub-culture of black surfing, and the music that inspired its talents to take the wild ride.

Many of the documentaries on tap deal with issues of social justice with an aspirational bent that fervently believes that that knowledge is the first step to repairing the problems and introducing a necessary period of healing. In Romanian director Andrei Ujica’s THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAS CEAUSESCU, the Stalinist dictator who was summarily executed following the post-war Communist regime, is an epic of the propaganda machine and media manipulation employed to keep his subjects docile and cooperative. Swedish director Goran Olsson unearths the personalities and politics of the 1960s/1970s black power struggle in the assemblage of found television footage from the era in THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE: 1967-1975. In Oscar nominee Pamela Yates’ GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, the forces of reform attempt to bring to justice the rampant dictators who terrorized Guatemala in the 1980s, in a regime that was kept in power by the manipulation of the CIA. Mexican director Eugenio Polgovsky examines the effects of poverty and drug cartel violence on the children in a Mexican border town in THE INHERITORS. Facing inner city violence in our own country, Oscar winning director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS) tells the tale of the antiviolence crusaders CeaseFire, who literally take their campaigns onto the gang-filled streets of Chicago. The on-going trauma of 9/11 is made visceral in the stories of five people who still are healing from the events of that tragic episode in U.S. history in James Whitaker’s moving REBIRTH. The early days of the AIDS crisis in the sexually free San Francisco of the early 1980s is relived by the survivors of the century’s most compelling epidemic in WE WERE HERE, an important testament to the courage and resilience of the gay community and its supporters directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber. Survivors of another kind of holocaust and the shadows of those whose fate led otherwise is explored in the touching film THERE WAS ONCE…..director/educator Gabor Kalman’s moving look at the efforts of a Hungarian high school teacher to rediscover and commemorate the lost Jewish community of her small town.

Even if they hint at politics or social justice, some documentaries are just fascinating portraits of individuals whose identities are clear, sharp and defined in a way that is both exhilarating and inspirational. This is certainly the case with BUCK, a compelling portrait of a renowned natural horseman whose taming and instinctive handling of wild horses offers a fascinating look at the innate connection between man and beast. Another personality with a remarkable intuitive connection with wildlife was anthropologist/activist Jane Goodall, whose experience amongst chimpanzees inspired a passion for saving the planet, is profiled in JANE’S JOURNEY, a fascinating portrait of a remarkable woman directed by Lorenz Knauer. In BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD, Oscar winning director Liz Garbus offers an unconventional look at the chess champion, a man driven by personal demons and the drive to be a master of his art form. The Brazilian auto racing legend Ayrton Senna is given the full 360 degree treatment in the rousing SENNA, directed by Asif Kapadia. The origins of the regrettable but unavoidable celebrity of those with no talent is traced to a 1970s pulp scandal involving scheming Midwest “model” Joyce McKinney and her sensational trial for the sexual imprisonment of a Mormon missionary in master documentarian Errol Morris’ timely TABLOID. As unseemly and unexpectedly hilarious are the drunken homophobic lowlifes whose recorded verbal tirades become an underground audio sensation in SHUT UP LITTLE MAN!, a nasty piece of voyeuristic exploitation directed by Matthew Bate. Of a totally different stripe and character is the Buddhist monk who fills the core of director Frederick Marx’s experiential film JOURNEY FROM ZANSKAR, the story of the travels and travails of a Tibetan religious leader who shepherds a group of promising students to a safe zone where they can get an education. A son attempts to understand the inner thoughts and motivations of his estranged father in THE MAN NOBODY KNEW, director Carl Colby’s intimate look at the life and career of his father William Colby, a legendary figure in United States intelligence history who commandeered some of the most aggressive and secretive activities of the latter half of the 20th century.  Love them or hate them, these are people with fascinating stories that are illuminated at a theater near you. Go forth, documentary lovers………

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