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The Real Thing 

Film Festivals and the Documentary Boom

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When looking at the time period for this miniboom in documentary box office, it’s hard not to identify two potentially influential factors: the rise of “reality television,” and the aftermath of 9/11. Film-industry experts and filmmakers, however, are divided as to whether these events have changed Americans’ movie going habits.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking company Exhibitor Relations, is among those who lean more toward the post-9/11 effect and less toward reality television. “People are much more serious post-9/11,” Dergarabedian says, “more open to learning about political ideas. … It’s kind of a leap to say a teenager who likes The Surreal Life will jump in the car and go see a documentary in a theater.”

Sarah Lash, vice president for acquisitions at IFC Films, does see a reality-TV connection, however. “It can’t be unrelated,” Lash says of the correlation between the popularity of reality shows and the growth in documentary box office. “I don’t think you can quantify the influence, but there’s been very clever packaging and marketing on the part of television executives, for TV audiences to see that reality can be equated with something entertaining.”

Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming John Cooper, meanwhile, hones in on the idea that “after 9/11, there is a willingness to look at reality differently … As news programming slipped away from being hard news, documentaries have come along to tell deeper stories.” Cooper also believes that viewers who have grown used to reality television may be more ready to expand what they define as entertainment—though he wryly suggests that “reality TV also helps our documentaries, because here you get to see when it’s done well.”

But while there’s little consensus regarding whether the audience has changed significantly, there is significantly more agreement regarding the impact of changes both within the film industry and in the filmmaking process. While trailblazers like Barbara Kopple, the Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris were innovating decades ago, insiders believe that the kinds of stories documentary filmmakers are telling—and the ways in which they’re choosing to tell those stories—have made the films more appealing than ever.

And if there’s any one factor about which there is the most agreement, it’s the impact of new technologies—including high-definition digital video cameras and the ability of editing software to reduce post-production costs—on what filmmakers can do, and how cheaply they can do it. Says Kathleen McInnis, director of the Slamdance Film Festival, “Now you have this camera that is so much less intrusive; you have the ability to shoot not just faster, but in more depth.”

Never underestimate the power of portability to increase your options, adds Henry-Alex Rubin, co-director of this year’s Sundance Documentary Competition film Murderball. He specifically mentions being able to jump into a cab to follow subjects or literally run with a camera to create a desired shot. “A lot of the angles we came up with would never be able to be executed with a 35mm camera,” says Rubin.

Sundance’s Cooper acknowledges the impact of technology, but puts more emphasis on what happens after shooting is completed. “The true creativity comes in how you master the content,” Cooper says. “It used to be that every subject got the same treatment. People are now trying to match the content or the subject with a style.”

That means fewer of the kinds of narration-heavy documentaries variously referred to as “BBC-style,” or “talking heads,” or “like eating your vegetables.” “I think documentary filmmakers today have this down to a science,” says Exhibitor Relations’ Dergarabedian. “It’s not just [filmmakers] throwing a camera at people and watching. They’re using music, editing. Michael Moore is a master of that; he owns that world he’s showing.

“Some of these docs are so well-made, they’re giving you that spoonful of sugar with the medicine.”

“There had been this sense that nine times out of 10, a doc would be staid and academic,” concurs IFC’s Lash. “Now they’re sexy, scandalous, intriguing.”

“[They’re] not like that documentary I used to have to sit through in seventh grade,” says McInnis, whose festival is opening and closing with a documentary feature for the first time in its history. She points to recent successes like Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans as examples of this new direction. “Filmmakers are making documentaries with extraordinarily strong stories. No matter when this was going to happen, when you have filmmakers using almost a narrative-story style, I think that’s going to grab the audience … whether it’s birds [Winged Migration] or child molesters.”

For those movies even to get a chance to grab the audience, though, they have to make their way into theaters. And many people believe that the independent distributors that handle documentaries are simply getting smarter and more creative about how they market them—or, as McInnis describes it, you’re getting distributors “who really trust their instincts.”

Lash notes that while distributors often still have to fight the preconception by potential viewers that documentaries will be dry, many docs boast advantages from a marketing standpoint as well. She points specifically to IFC’s success drawing outdoor enthusiasts to 2004’s Touching the Void, the tale of a mountaineering expedition gone wrong that grossed $4.5 million. “A lot of the subject matter covered [by documentaries] is very specific, and you can reach out to target demographics,” says Lash. “With Void, we had the luxury to say, ‘There’s a very specific target audience; if anyone’s going to love this film, they will.’”

Murderball’s Rubin also hails distributors for getting over their previous “failure of imagination” that had left quality documentaries as theatrical afterthoughts. “You have to credit whomever the people are out there that have the bright idea to give a movie a shot in the theater. There have been a few pioneers—and I would actually attribute them more to the distributors than us on the filmmaking side—who pushed this stuff out there, and noticed that people wanted to see it.”

Festival Expressed

No entities have pushed documentaries longer or more vigorously, however, than film festivals like Sundance and Slamdance. Documentaries coming out of Sundance’s competition slate—like last year’s Super Size Me, or 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans—can get a huge boost in terms of credibility and exposure. “Everyone in the business is looking to Sundance,” says Ellen Perry, director of this year’s Documentary Competition entry The Fall of Fujimori. “Which is a lot of power, by the way, for an institution to have. And they’re very responsible with that power.”

On that point, IFC Films’ Lash is upfront about the festival’s significance. “There are so many films out there,” she says, “I look at [Sundance] as a tool. They’re culling, presumably, a large volume of films that we could sift through, but they play a curatorial or editorial role. They help us do our jobs a bit.”

John Cooper understands the festival’s power as gatekeeper, and says that programmers actually argue “more fiercely” over the documentary films selected than over other categories. It is important to Cooper that Sundance continue to promote documentary films on an equal footing with narrative fiction films. In fact, the festival has expanded its focus on documentary films in recent years, with a World Documentary category added two years ago, and the addition of a competition jury to that category this year.

Yet Cooper acknowledges frustration over how hard it has been to get even a theoretically film-literate festival audience to treat documentaries on that same equal footing. “If you got [viewers] in the seat for a documentary, they had an experience that moved them … but they always acted like it was sort of a phenomenon unique to that movie.”

Now that viewers are getting into those seats in greater numbers, Cooper admits that he derives pleasure from seeing Sundance documentaries go out into the theatrical marketplace and succeed. He also expresses concern, though, over what might be motivating viewers to get into those seats at this year’s festival. “I’m afraid everyone’s coming to the documentaries to see which three docs are going to make money this year,” he says.

Sarah Lash pretty much validates that concern. “When I first started covering Sundance,” she says, “absolutely the emphasis would be on … essentially the narrative films. I’d cover the mostly highly anticipated docs, but not exhaustively. Now, I wouldn’t dream of missing a single doc.

“I would say there’s a general feeling that you don’t have to feel quite so conservative when you’re running numbers on documentaries [for potential distribution]. Six years ago, there weren’t many encouraging comparisons. Now you can feel a little more bullish,” Lash adds.

Slamdance’s McInnis concludes that where once a film festival could be the end for a documentary, it’s now often just the beginning. “Five years ago, you might be putting all your [publicity and advertising] budget into just getting into film festivals,” she says. “Now, you are the industry’s new darlings.”

For the documentary filmmakers, the increased attention already is producing dividends. Where few documentaries have tended to come into Sundance in past years with theatrical distribution already in place, Murderball has already been picked up by independent distributor ThinkFilm. For directors Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, that means being able to enjoy the festival experience on its own terms, without a schedule full of business meetings. “Festivals are a wonderful bubble, like academics going to their little colloquiums,” says Rubin. “And then you go back to the harsh reality that nobody cares about you.”

Sean McAllister—director of the Sundance World Documentary selection The Liberace of Baghdad—isn’t in the same situation, but sees his prospects for a theatrical deal as brighter than they might have been in previous years. “Last year Control Room took $2.6 million at U.S. cinemas, which is a great success for a film of its nature,” he wrote in an e-mail from his home in England. “Generally [there’s more potential for success] because of the impact Michael Moore has had, and not to forget the role of President Bush, whose foreign policy has given political documentaries a revival in theaters, as long as they are critical of the U.S. in some way. So I thank you, Mr. Bush, for making my film more popular to the U.S. public.”

While there may be more focus than ever on money deals where Sundance documentaries are concerned, for Cooper it’s a risk worth taking. “It’s not a world [documentary filmmakers] have gotten a chance to participate in very much,” he says. “When these filmmakers get a budget to do something new, that’s the thing we watch the closest, in a way. Being a documentary filmmaker is a struggle, no matter what.”

The Real Future

With theatrical documentaries offering as many opportunities for real profit as for simple prestige, observers recognize that there are plenty of potential pitfalls for documentary filmmakers. Where documentaries might have been considered “the last pure film art form,” in the words of Slamdance’s McInnis, now other factors could intrude on filmmakers’ decisions. “There’s always a danger in seeing what becomes successful,” she adds. “If you ‘re making decisions based on what the public wants, you’re in big trouble.”

Murderball co-director Rubin addresses a factor that could rock the entire premise of “fly on the wall” style documentaries: the possibility that the film’s subjects could expect some sort of financial compensation for participating in the project. “I think it’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “The more exposure documentaries get, the more savvy audiences—and therefore, future subjects—get. And they may be demanding deals that are unheard of, demanding pieces of the movie.

“As soon as you start playing in that world of money, you’re bound to feel some of the compromises that come hand-in-hand with commercial success,” he adds. “It’ll be funny if we get to the point where people say a documentary has been over-produced—swooping crane shots, helicopter shots.”

Not so fast, offers Exhibitor Relations’ Dergarabedian. “Obviously moviegoers enjoy this type, but the ones that have done well have been really good movies,” he says. “One thing that can kill a genre fast is a string of mediocre films.” And for a huge section of the moviegoing public, there’s still “baggage and preconceptions” to overcome, as Sarah Lash phrases it, regarding the whole idea of a documentary.

Still, at least for the time being, filmmakers may find opportunities increased as they try to get their documentaries out into the world. For Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock—who now is developing a reality television series—that means “all my phone calls get returned now.” For the directors of Murderball, it meant scoring a distribution deal before the film was even completed, allowing them the resources to “jump on a plane at a moment’s notice,” according to Rubin, when the necessity arose. For The Fall of Fujimori’s Ellen Perry, it meant that once the Sundance name was associated with her film, “the purse strings started to get looser” for funding to complete post-production. It’s not the rarefied, eight-figures world of the Hollywood blockbuster, but for a documentary filmmaker, it’s enough to keep making the movies and telling the stories they love.

And maybe—just maybe—get a chance to be up on that marquee next to Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman.


The following films were available for pre-festival review.

All reviews by Scott Renshaw and Eric D. Snider

5th World *.5

[American Spectrum]

A painfully dull glimpse into the world of the modern Navajo, filtered through a tedious story of budding romance by American Indian writer/director Blackhorse Lowe. Two Navajo college students take a road trip to the girl’s mother’s house on the Arizona reservation, hitchhiking most of the way and engaging in naturalistic, semi-improvised banter as they do. Often, though, they just walk, and we get endless shots of desert landscapes and blue skies, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (not a compliment, by the way). By the time anything actually happens—more than an hour into the film—it’s too late. (EDS)

After Innocence ***

[Documentary Competition]

Equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating, Jessica Sanders delivers a gut shot to whatever remaining faith you may have in our criminal-justice system. Sanders profiles men who had spent anywhere from six to 20 years in prison, before DNA or other evidence freed them—without support structures, compensation or usually even an apology. More dramatic is a Florida inmate’s collision with stonewalling prosecutors despite evidence of his innocence—imagine that, outrageous and politically motivated behavior in Florida! Leave aside the irony of O.J. Simpson attorney Barry Scheck as a crusader for facts over legal legerdemain, and let the stories move you. (SR)

The Ballad of Jack and Rose **.5


Rebecca Miller’s follow-up to her 2002 Sundance prize-winner Personal Velocity is a moody drama about a single father (Miller’s hubby Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives alone with his teenage daughter (Camilla Belle) on what used to be an island commune. The girl’s inability to cope with real life—a direct result of Dad keeping her isolated from the world—becomes problematic when Dad invites his girlfriend (the always-sharp Catherine Keener) and her two sons to live with them; angst and quasi-deep symbolism ensue. Watch for “Eve” to bring a snake into “paradise”! (EDS)

Crónicas **

[World Dramatic]

Think Primal Fear, only with Geraldo Rivera instead of a lawyer. John Leguizamo stars as Manolo, a hotshot reporter for a Latin American TV-news program. In Ecuador covering the case of a serial rapist/murderer of children known as “The Monster,” Manolo gets involved when a man imprisoned for another crime offers information about “The Monster” in exchange for favorable coverage. Issues of ethics and hubris swirl around Sebastián Cordero’s film, but the bottom line is the jail cell psychological tête-a-tête between Manolo and his source. And even with subtitles, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. (SR)

Dhakiyarr vs. The Crown **

[World Documentary]

There’s a distinct National Geographic vibe to Tom Murray and Allan Collins’ film—which isn’t exactly a compliment. Their subject is a dispute between the Yolngu aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, Australia, and the government over returning the sacred remains of a tribal leader, executed 70 years earlier for killing a white police officer. Rituals, dances and the like receive respectful, detailed examination, but it’s most noteworthy that the climactic march on the colonial capital becomes something of a cultural tourist attraction. And ultimately, that’s what the movie feels most like as well. (SR)

Forty Shades of Blue **.5

[Dramatic Competition]

It’s not easy to make vague dissatisfaction dramatically compelling, and Ira Sachs doesn’t always hit the mark. Laura (Dina Korzun)—the Russian live-in trophy girlfriend of Memphis music industry legend Alan James (Rip Torn) and mother of his 3-year-old son—confronts her ennui during a visit from Alan’s estranged adult son Michael (Darren Burrows). Sachs and Korzun’s performance effectively capture Laura’s existence on the periphery of Alan’s life, but minor-key character moments don’t resonate the way they should. Though smooth and artfully constructed, Forty Shades is filled with consequences that never feel particularly consequential. (SR)

Frozen Angels **.5

[Documentary Competition]

Seriously, there’s just too damned much information here. Eric Black and Frauke Sandig attempt a comprehensive exploration of reproductive technology, from the now almost commonplace use of surrogates and egg donors, to the potential for selective breeding. Stylized images of Los Angeles cityscapes and police helicopters heighten the ominous notion of blond, blue-eyed genetic material being exported to the world, and many of the characters are compelling. But the film bounces too often between “it’s wonderful” and “it’s creepy,” never hitting any one topic in enough depth. Evenhanded is good; a barrage of Scientific American headlines is a mixed blessing. (SR)

The Girl from Monday **.5


“A Science Fiction By Hal Hartley” is an intriguing title card, but the filmmaker’s wry style doesn’t always mix with pointed social satire. In a near future America controlled by a huge corporation, ad exec Jack (Bill Sage) works from within supporting a rebel movement, while caring for a visitor from an alien culture (Tatiana Abracos). Hartley takes savvy shots at consumerism, peppering his world with great details (e.g. criminals sentenced to work as high school teachers) and dreamy imagery. Unfortunately, the alien angle never feels fully integrated, and Hartley perches too aloofly when he could be getting good and angry. (SR)

Green Chair ***

[World Dramatic]

All the uncensored sex in Park Chul-soo’s romantic drama could easily distract you from how effectively the film keeps reinventing itself. After serving a prison sentence for “corrupting” Hyun—a 19-year-old minor under Korean law—32-year-old divorcée Moon-hee resumes the affair with her young lover, despite fearing that the relationship is ultimately doomed. The arc of that relationship doesn’t take a conventional course, running from the purely physical to a strange mutual understanding, and Park captures it with plenty of visual style. Yeah, it’s graphic—but, in its own weird way, it’s also surprisingly sweet. (SR)

Lackawanna Blues **


As an intimate theatrical piece allowing playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson to honor people and places of his youth, I suspect this material works just fine. On-screen, it’s stilted and unfocused. Set in segregated upstate New York from 1956-66, the story centers on a boardinghouse run by big-hearted “Nanny” Crosby (S. Epatha Merkerson), who raises Ruben amid plenty of colorful characters. Delroy Lindo, Jeffrey Wright and Louis Gossett Jr. are among those who show up to deliver a monologue and disappear between displays of Nanny’s you-go-girl strength. Vibrant and full of period detail, but ultimately more personal than powerful. (SR)

Layer Cake ***


You’ve seen this story before, but it’s still commendable when it’s pulled off with panache. Daniel Craig stars as an unnamed London drug dealer preparing to retire on a comfy nest egg, until his boss yanks him into two assignments, either one of which could get him killed. Director Matthew Vaughn previously worked as a producer with Guy Ritchie, and effectively works within the same stylish underworld idiom. Does the too-dense plot make this Layer Cake at times feel more like a pound cake? Maybe, but Craig’s performance and a surprisingly potent ending more than make up for it. (SR)

Live-In Maid ***

[World Dramatic]

Imagine an Argentine spinoff of Will & Grace that’s all about Karen and Rosario, and you’ll get a sense of Live-In Maid. This droll little movie follows what happens when a fading heiress squanders her fortune and has only her maid left to keep her company—a maid she can no longer afford. Veteran Argentine actress Norma Aleandro and excellent newcomer Norma Argentina play the dual protagonists with humor and uncommon depth, as master and servant who are also, in a convoluted, co-dependent way, best friends. (EDS)

Mardi Gras: Made in China **

[Documentary Competition]

David Redmon inadvertently mimics the repetitive nature of the labor he depicts in his look at a Fuzhou, China, factory where teenage girls make $2 a day manufacturing Mardi Gras beads for horny Americans. At a core level, the movie nails American hedonism and blind consumerism mixing at their most grotesque, and plucks at conscience as it should. But there’s essentially 30 minutes of material here stretched over 75 minutes, with themes and even specific shots hammered over and over. The message may be important, but the execution doesn’t provide enough reason to deliver it at feature length. (SR)

Matando Cabos **.5


America has its share of Quentin Tarantino wannabes; why shouldn’t Mexico? As wannabes go, Alejandro Lozano is pretty good, though, and his first feature film—about two kidnappings gone awry, replete with mistaken identities, amputated fingers and enough profanity to knock a buzzard off a crap-wagon—is buoyant throughout, even when it stops being logical. Lozano employs flashbacks, fantasy sequences and quick glimpses of what’s happening elsewhere, all in the name of violent, vulgar dark comedy. But in the end, maybe it’s too dark: It seems the only ones who actually get hurt are the ones who don’t deserve it. (EDS)

MirrorMask ***.5


From graphic novelists Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman (Sandman), it’s a dazzling geek-boy fantasy come to life. Teenager Helena (Stephanie Leonidas)—guilty over cruelty to her mother (Gina McKee) just before Mom falls ill with a brain tumor—dreams about her quest for a magical MirrorMask in a bizarre land. Unlike in most such efforts, genuine wit accompanies the visuals, and those images—housecat sphinxes with human mouths; freaky jack-in-the-boxes crooning “Close to You”—are jaw-dropping. While the dream context strips away some urgency, it’s not often anymore that you can say of a movie, “You’ve never seen anything like it.” (SR)

Mitchellville **.5

[American Spectrum]

John R. Harkrider’s script lets down his own confident rookie directing in this psychological drama. Harkrider also stars as Gabriel, a corporate attorney whose story—of his domestic anxieties, workplace woes and a friendship with a suicidal music teacher (the superb Herb Lovelle)—unfolds in a therapy session. Multiple timelines and unreliable dreams make for a tangled narrative, but the crisp pacing and Soopum Sohn’s cinematography hold your interest in where this redemption tale is headed. But ultimately where it’s headed is a let-down, leaving Mitchellville without enough emotional substance to match its impressive style. (SR)

Murderball ***.5

[Documentary Competition]

Reducing the story to its thematic essence—crippled men rediscovering their sense of manly pride through the wheelchair sport of “quad rugby”—doesn’t do justice to how Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro handle it. They follow quadriplegic athletes preparing for the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, focusing on dynamic characters like Team USA star Mark Zupan while showing how their jock mentality transcends what their bodies can do. Yes, it’s a “triumph of the spirit” narrative, but the marvelously constructed sequence involving the climactic match gives the athletes’ quest for wholeness even more human depth. (SR)

Odessa … Odessa! ***

[World Documentary]

Director Michale Boganim takes an impressionistic tour through an idea expressed by one of its subjects: “Jews are always on the road.” His three-part journey begins in the dwindling Jewish community in Odessa, Ukraine, before moving to expatriate communities of Odessan Jews in Brighton Beach, N.Y., and Ashdod, Israel. Each place practically becomes a distinct, evocatively photographed character, accentuating the people’s deeply ingrained sense that, no matter where they are, glory days were somewhere else—and somewhen else. It may not always be dramatically gripping, but as a tone poem, it’s truly cinematic. (SR)

Palermo Hollywood ***.5

[World Dramatic]

From its in medias wreck opening sequence to its appropriately tragic conclusion, this thriller churns along with energy and visual imagination. Pablo (Matias Desiderio) and Mario (co-writer Brian Maya) are best friends and small-time crooks in a seedy Buenos Aires neighborhood, until one assignment for the local crime boss goes bad. While Argentine economic tensions play a subtextual role—Mario’s a middle-class Jew pretending to be a street kid—the surface pleasures prove more satisfying. Great use of music, including a pulsing nightclub sequence, accentuates veteran video director Eduardo Pinto’s sense for slick and stylish genre action. (SR)

Reefer Madness ***


The obliviously campy 1936 cautionary film becomes the self-consciously campy musical comedy. In 1936, a lecturer (Alan Cumming) shows parents a film about the evils of marijuana, and how it corrupted high-school sweethearts Jimmy (Christian Campbell) and Mary (Kristen Bell). The best songs by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney are packed into the first act (including the brilliantly profane “Listen to Jesus”), leaving a sagging final hour. But there’s still plenty of wicked fun along the way, and some pointed shots at contemporary concern “for the children” manifesting itself as racism, xenophobia and moralism. (SR)

Reel Paradise ***

[Special Screenings]

In the last month of a yearlong stint running a cinema on the Fijian island of Taveuni, veteran indie film guru John Pierson (Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes) commissioned director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) to record him and his family. The result is an insightful, low-key culture clash, as edgy Americans create ripples in the remote community. James occasionally falls back on the Real World trope of focusing on the loudest argument—usually between Pierson’s wife and their brash 16-year-old daughter—but more often he captures how cultural imperialism intrudes subtly. And sometimes not-so-subtly. (SR)

Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story **.5

[Documentary Competition]

Dan Klores and Ron Berger could’ve taken several possible angles on this story of the 1960s boxing champ—so they do. Initially it focuses effectively on Griffith’s defining fight—a 1962 bout in which Benny “Kid” Paret died as a result of head injuries—including great dueling commentaries emphasizing the way sports are mythologized. But the filmmakers also tap-dance around Griffith’s closeted homosexuality, and make a late stab at turning the tale into Griffith’s quest for absolution from Paret’s surviving son. No one seems sure what the real story is here; the film dances and moves without landing a knockout punch. (SR)

Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire ***.5

[World Documentary]

If Hotel Rwanda hasn’t awakened your conscience (and your guilt) to the genocide that occurred in Africa, this engrossing documentary will. It follows Roméo Dallaire—the good-hearted, eminently moral man who led the U.N.’s laughable “peace-keeping” efforts in 1994, as he returns to Rwanda to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the massacre. His frustrating,

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