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Dawn of the docs 

Can documentaries save America?

They're coming.

Banished from the mainstream media, left to their own expressive devices, bearers of important, urgent or at least fascinating truths about the awesome beast called humanity, they're the documentary makers.

And, given the disparity between the awesome size of their subjects and the paltry means at their disposal, they're totally insane.

Delusional, on a scale of Don Quixote. They believe that the moving image, the art they practice called documentary filmmaking, can change the world. And sometimes they're right.

In less than two weeks, the seventh annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will get under way at the Carolina Theater in Durham. Thousands of Triangle residents will descend on downtown Durham for at least a portion of the weekend and scores of filmmakers will be present. And the biggest star in attendance will be Michael Moore, the man who, for much of the general public, personifies documentary filmmaking.

In an election year that is already threatening to feel like a decade--and a really nasty, brutish one, at that--it may be that there's a bigger audience than ever for non-fiction political films that operate outside of the constraints of mainstream news organizations.

"At times of political and social unease, if not unrest, people--certainly through the 20th century--have used the moving image to reach other people," says Mary Lea Bandy of New York's Museum of Modern Art, who is curating a program at the festival on the blurring of distinctions between fiction and non-fiction films.

It's this environment that concerns veteran Texas filmmaker Paul Stekler, another guest curator for Full Frame who will also be screening his own recently completed project about Texas politics, Last Man Standing. "We've got an incredibly politically divided country. It's more polarized, but people are less interested in institution-based politics," Stekler said in a telephone interview from Austin.

In the overcrowded marketplace of ideas--a marketplace well-stocked but lacking in product variety--it takes a loud, persistent message to be heard. What documentary observers have found most encouraging is the new receptiveness of audiences to non-fiction filmmaking, providing new opportunities for disseminating alternative political and social viewpoints.

The most widely noted movie trend of last year was the explosion of popular documentaries. Over the past year, we've seen the release of such fascinating and entertaining fare as Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, Winged Migration, Stone Reader, Rivers and Tides, My Architect and the year's Oscar-winner, The Fog of War. All of these films, in various ways, defy the old stereotypes about documentaries--that they're boring, medicinal fare with droning talking heads that are best suited for PBS. But accessible documentaries have been made for a long, long time--going at least as far back as Robert Flaherty, whose first success was Nanook of the North, released in 1922.

The flood of documentaries has been a welcome respite from the multiplex offerings; it seems increasingly and unfortunately clear that Hollywood is firmly committed to expensive, escapist fare. Some commercial films are quite good, of course, but for every installment of The Lord of the Rings, there's a couple dozen mind-numbing action-thriller-comedies.

The climate was so propitious for documentaries that Paramount decided last fall to gamble on an ambitious release of Tupac: Resurrection, a well-made film about the life and death of rap star Tupac Shakur. In what was perhaps an unfortunate demonstration of the limits of documentaries' appeal, this film managed only about $7.7 million at the box office. Although that figure is an excellent one for documentaries, it can't be regarded as a success for the studio when one considers they opened the film on 800 screens nationwide, with a correspondingly expensive ad campaign. (By way of comparison, Winged Migration brought in $10.7 million on a mere 200 screens.) Nonetheless, the release of this film to mainstream audiences showed just how far documentaries have come.

So why are people watching documentaries now? The reasons for this are complex, but Full Frame executive director Nancy Buirski offers a plausible, and familiar, explanation for their ubiquity. "The one single film that convinced theatrical exhibitors that there was a market for documentaries was Bowling for Columbine."

Ah, Michael Moore, the shambling, sui generis bogeyman of documentaries. Love him or hate him, he's become the public face of political filmmaking. Whether it's instigating the furor over George W. Bush's military service by publicly calling the president a deserter or making fecklessly shrill anti-war speeches on national television, Moore has consistently managed to insert himself in the public debates of our times.

His newest film is no exception: Titled Fahrenheit 9/11, it promises to, among other things, explore the alleged intricate ties between the Bush and bin Laden families. At Full Frame, Moore will be making two public appearances, including one in which he'll discuss his work (Saturday, April 3, at 9 p.m., $15).

One thing Moore will not do is screen his new film (although he could always surprise us with a clip or two). Instead, Fahrenheit 9/11 will premiere in that hotbed of anti-Bush dissent, France, at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A subsequent stateside theatrical release is planned in advance of November's presidential election.

Despite his notoriety and his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, Moore's prominence is a bit misleading: Many documentary filmmakers would concur with the assessment MoMA's Bandy, offered in a recent telephone interview, "People call Michael Moore a documentary filmmaker, but I think he's a propagandist. He's telling the truth but he tells it in manipulative ways."

For better or worse, Moore's outsized persona dominates the documentary world, and he'll certainly loom large over the Full Frame festival. His politicized films have helped make documentaries a popular art form, but he's been a controversial figure ever since The New Yorker's Pauline Kael bucked the critical hosannas back in 1989 when she slammed Roger and Me, Moore's first film, as the work of a demagogic charlatan.

Is Moore's brand of gonzo documentary-making--playing fast and loose with facts and chronology, staging sideshow confrontations for the benefit of the peanut gallery--the only game in town? Certainly not, but there's definitely a trend towards these sorts of films.

The hottest documentary in the film world right now has already been called "the Bowling for Columbine of fast food" by one television critic. This next big thing is Super Size Me, a Sundance prize-winning documentary that tackles one of the most ubiquitous brand names in the world, McDonald's, and exposes in graphic and apparently hilarious fashion just how toxic its products are. Super Size Me, which is director Morgan Spurlock's debut feature, will screen out of competition at the Full Frame fest before entering theaters nationwide in May. Spurlock himself stars in the film, in the manner of Michael Moore's faux naif, regular-Joe persona. He records himself eating at McDonald's, three times a day for 30 days, to see what would happen. Among the consequences: The formerly fit and healthy young director gains 25 pounds and sustains liver distress that prompts a physician to compare his organ to pate. In the meantime, Spurlock travels the country, interviews dietary experts and makes repeated but futile attempts to contact McDonald's for an interview.

Reached in his New York office, Spurlock says he was never intimidated by the corporate muscle of McDonald's or their legal department. "Throughout the process, we kept consulting lawyers and advisors, to make sure we were staying within our rights to parody, satire and social commentary," he says.

Asked if he thought his film could reach an audience of people who aren't inclined to watch documentaries but do tend to eat fast food, Spurlock says, "This film is a comedy. It can play as easily in Topeka as in New York City. As it builds its base, I'd like to get it into multiplexes," he says. "Besides, my home state is West Virginia, the fattest state in the country."

"A little sugar helps the medicine go down," he continued. "When they can laugh at me, it's great."

Although the McDonald's corporate heads won't concede any connection, the fact remains that coincidentally or not, the company recently announced it was phasing out its notorious "super size" menu option which encourages consumers to jack up their fat and calorie intake for an extra 39 cents or so. Spurlock, for one, believes his film was responsible for the decision. "Our film is very large influence on the decision," he says. "Was it 100 percent? I don't know. I'd like to think that everything that's transpired over last eight weeks can't be attributed to luck and coincidence."

Although Spurlock's motives seem sincere--and he's certainly performing an important public service--it's interesting to note that he, in contrast to Moore, seems to have few credentials as a progressive activist. Instead, his background is the less exalted strata of the film industry--he's won awards for corporate videos (Sony was a client) and he produced an Internet ritual humiliation show called I Bet You Will that had a short-lived run on MTV. This could be a sign that Moore-style films are a good career move. Or, more charitably, it could be a sign that Moore's sensibility is an infectious one that reaches people who circulate outside of the readership of Mother Jones magazine (the publication that Moore edited, briefly, before his life's second act). At any rate, The New York Times reported Monday that Spurlock has signed a deal with the cable channel FX to produce a show based on the Super Size Me concept. To be called 30 Days, each episode will feature a person spending "a month living in an unfamiliar environment; FX says the shows might involve a Christian living as a Muslim, a wealthy person living in poverty or a prosecuting attorney spending 30 days in jail."

Moore and Spurlock aren't the only ones producing gonzo, agitprop docs. Other films getting some attention include a documentary about Karl Rove called Bush's Brain, a huge self-explanatory crowd-pleaser at Austin's South by Southwest film festival earlier this month, and The Hunting of the President, an account of what Sen. Hillary Clinton called the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that hounded her husband throughout his tenure as President. Although neither of these films is playing Full Frame, we can count on being able to see them in one venue or another--television, video, MoveOn.org or in theaters--later this year.

Behind the high-profile, high-concept docs such as those of Moore and Spurlock, there is an entire community of filmmakers who are making urgent, important films. After scrounging up grant money and paying remaining expenses out of pocket, filmmakers spend years exploring their subjects--subjects that often float far beneath the radar of current headlines. But for all their earnest rigor, the filmmakers continue to struggle with the issue of finding a wide audience.

For years, PBS's POV series has been a vital outlet for such films. Some notable Full Frame prize-winners from years past as Flag Wars and Two Towns of Jasper were eventually broadcast there, and several selections from the upcoming POV season will be on display at Full Frame next month, including Paul Stekler's out-of-competition Last Man Standing.

Stekler, who teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, has been making films about the painstaking and unvarnished practice of democracy in America for years. One film from a decade ago was shot, in fact, in North Carolina. It recounted an idealistic woman's doomed bid to unseat a U.S. congressman--a corrupt tool of the timber industry--in western North Carolina. (Its very title says much, if not all: The Political Education of Maggie Lauterer. )

"I've spent 20 years doing this sort of stuff," Stekler says. "I got into making political documentaries because I didn't like the way the mainstream media was covering the political process."

Last Man Standing, his new film, follows two different Texas political battles in the 2002 election. One is an intriguing but low-profile race for a state house seat, which is intercut with coverage of the big money race for the governorship. The film, which features interviews with Texas stalwarts Ann Richards, Molly Ivins and Karl Rove, received an boisterous reception at its sold-out South by Southwest premiere in Austin's 1,000-seat Paramount Theater. "Toward the end of my film, when Rove was talking, nobody heard it because the hissing was so loud!" Stekler says, still sounding amazed.

However much he may have appreciated the audience response to his film, Stekler is generally unimpressed with agitprop films such as another of the festival's hits, Bush's Brain. "It was all about why [Rove] is bad, not at all about why he's powerful," Stekler says. "'He's bad, he's bad, he's bad.' It wasn't very illuminating."

To Stekler, there are two basic types of political documentaries: agitprop films and process films. "What I do is process: How does the process work, and what does it take to win?" he asked. "Do people get elected because they're a better person, a more moral person? No. People get elected by who runs a better campaign."

But Stekler acknowledges that these are subtleties that don't immediately jibe with a generation weaned on politics as blood sport, a procession of attitudes, symbols, sound bites and tightly packaged television commercials. Hence, finding an audience for his films is a little trickier. "Michael Moore puts his movies in theaters. Mine are on television, but there are fewer watching," he says. "But neither film reaches as many as the mainstream cable news organizations."

"What I'm hoping for in my film is to get people interested in politics," he continued. "I want people to come away with more understanding of the system and how to win elections."

Three other POV films with political topics coming to Full Frame are Thirst, by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, Farmingville, by Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval, and Chisholm '72 by Shola Lynch.

The elegantly titled Thirst concerns, as Kaufman puts it, "the corporate takeover of world water supplies." It's a huge and vital topic, but as Kaufman's partner Snitow acknowledges, it's not on the top of most Americans' agendas.

"Most people assume that you turn on the tap and that's it," Kaufman says. "They're not going to spend a lot of time with it."

But Thirst makes a strong case for the urgency of the subject, taking us to parts of the world where water is a scarce resource. In the desert state of Rajasthan, India, villagers have formed simple but effective cooperative reservoirs. Half a world away in Cochabamba, Bolivia, citizens take to the streets in a series of bitter, bloody demonstrations when the private European corporation that had taken over their water supply began charging exorbitant, unaffordable prices. Meanwhile, Kaufman and Snitow follow the citizens of Stockton, Calif., as they mobilize to prevent a similar private takeover of their own water.

In contrast to Thirst, American viewers will need little introduction to the issues undergirding Farmingville. Tambini and Sandoval's film, which will be POV's season premiere on June 22, examines the effect of a vicious anti-immigrant crime on a Long Island community feeling burdened by a huge influx of day laborers. One morning, two men posing as contractors took two Mexican laborers to an abandoned warehouse and attacked them with a knife and a posthole digger.

The immigrants barely survived the attack, and the incident galvanized the community, generating a controversy that Tambini and Sandoval spent a year following. When asked how they hope to use their film to generate discussion, Tambini responded, "We've got a terrific outreach program called Active Voice that's building a campaign around the film. We're also getting the film out to the Conference of State Legislatures and film festivals."

Another political filmmaker, Alexandra Lescaze, will come to next month's festival with a film but no distributor--yet. While living in Chapel Hill in the 1990s, she became interested in a union organizing effort at a Kannapolis textile mill. She eventually spent four years covering the ups and downs of the struggle to unionize and the resulting film, Where Do You Stand? Stories from an American Mill, will screen out of competition at Full Frame, with a panel discussion to follow.

Lescaze's film is no less politically urgent as a film like Super Size Me, but it concerns an unglamorous subject that doesn't lend itself to gonzo theatrics. Industrial unions, her film's topic, are fast becoming a casualty of economic globalization--these days, a company can kill a union drive by simply closing shop and opening a new one abroad. Manufacturing jobs disappear from old mill towns, leaving those left in the lurch to find poverty-wage work at Wal-Mart and other service jobs.

Lescaze has no illusions about the future of industrial unions in our globalizing world. "I don't think unions can save jobs in this context," she says. But her film is intended in part to be a testimony to the principle of labor consciousness. "I wanted to tell a real story of people and how much has changed from generation to generation," she says.

"And yes, I do want to point out the right to organize," Lescaze continued. "We have that right on paper, but it's not worth the paper it's printed on."

Many of the filmmakers coming to Full Frame next month are in Lescaze's shoes. While they're delighted as always to have an audience--particularly of their peers--these filmmakers are also in search of distribution. Unfortunately, theatrical distribution is excruciatingly tight for all independent films, fiction and non-fiction alike, so most documentary films that find distribution will do so in specialized markets: human rights groups, for example, or mental health organizations.

With any luck, several of the films shown next month at the Carolina Theater will break out and land a high-profile distribution deal--either theatrically or for television. While Super Size Me will undoubtedly pack the Durham Armory for its 2:30 p.m. screening on Saturday, April 3, there will be many other filmmaking voices clamoring to be heard. For four days in early April, their voices will be heard in Durham. EndBlock

Political docs
On Saturday, April 3, filmmaking notables George Butler, D.A. Pennebaker, Michael Moore, Harry Shearer and Paul Stekler will consider the state of political filmmaking on a panel called " Documentary as the Swing Vote ." Tickets are $10 and will go on sale Saturday morning. See www.fullframefest.org for more information.

Here's a look at notable politically-oriented documentaries that will be screened in competition at Full Frame. (Films under 45 minutes long are marked with a bullet):

Balseros: Cubans escape to America on rafts during the mass exodus of 1994. April 3, 9:45 a.m.

Battle Hospital: British field hospitals in Iraq, by an embedded filmmaker. April 3, 11:45 a.m.

The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan: The statues of the title are the ones destroyed by the Taliban in March, 2001. April 3, 9 a.m.

Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed A celebration of the first black woman to run for President. April 2, 12:30 p.m.

Citizen King: A new film about the later years of MLK, using primary sources. April 2, 7:30 p.m.

The Control Room: A view of the Iraq War, from the vantage point of Al Jazeera. April 2, 10:30 p.m.

A Dangerous Business: A Frontline investigation into workplace safety. April 3, 12:45 p.m.

Farmingville: The fallout from an assault on two immigrant laborers in Long Island. April 3, 7:45 p.m.

The Fight: Joe Louis and Max Schmeling square off for a rematch in Yankee Stadium, 1938. April 3, noon.

  • Foxhole: Two Vietnam soldiers find forbidden love during wartime. April 2, 5 p.m.

    Haharug Ha-17 (No. 17): The search for the identity of a Tel Aviv bus bombing survivor. April 3, 7:30 p.m.

    Hao Si Bu Ru Lai Huo Zhe (To Live is Better Than to Die): AIDS in the Chinese countryside. April 4, 9:45 a.m.

    Home of the Brave: A remembrance of a white woman murdered during the civil rights movement. April 4, 10:15 a.m.

    Home of the Brave, Land of the Free: A look at U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, as captured by a Norwegian film crew. April 3, 11:45 a.m.

    The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt: A progressive political candidate disappears in Colombia. April 4, 10:15 a.m.

  • The King & Dick: You've seen the photo of Elvis and Nixon, here's the scoop. April 2, 12:30 p.m.

    Mannen Som Eisket Haugesund (Man Who Loved Haugesund): a Norwegian anti-fascist and Holocaust martyr. April 2, 9:30 a.m.

    Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property: Multiple perspectives on the controversial slave revolt leader. April 2, 9:30 a.m.

    The President vs. David Hicks: A look at an Australian Muslim convert, still confined without charges in Guantanamo. April 2, 5:45 p.m.

    The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, before and after the coup attempt. April 2, 8 p.m.

    Stalingrad: New perspectives on the terrible WWII battle. April 1, 1:30 p.m.

  • Tajne Tasmy SB: The secret files of the Polish secret police come to light. April 2, 8:15 p.m.

  • Texas Hospitality: A brief survey of last meals on death row. April 3, 9:30 a.m. Thirst: Citizens fight the suits over water rights. April 3, 12:45 p.m.

    Tobacco Money Feeds My Family: Struggling to survive in North Carolina's tobacco country. April 2, 9:45 a.m.

    Unlikely Heroes: New stories of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. April 4, 10 a.m.

    Coming next week
    In the second part of our coverage of the Full Frame festival, Indy writers will consider films about Southern politics, copyright issues and the blurring of distinctions between fiction and documentary films. We'll also have an update on last year's most notorious (and unseen) film, and our board of reviewers will have capsule assessments of more than two dozen films. For more information, the program schedule and tickets, go to www.fullframefest.org.

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