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To be and to get paid

Last month, Nicholas Philibert's celebrated documentary To Be and To Have played in the Triangle. A huge hit in France, this film about one year in the life of a one-room French schoolhouse won the top jury prize at last year's Full Frame fest. However, there's some disquieting news about the film in the current issue of Film Comment.

It seems that Georges Lopez, the film's serene and gentle schoolmaster, has filed two lawsuits against Philibert, demanding over 300,000 euros in compensation. His reasoning? The film's spectacular success was in large measure due to his charismatic presence and audiences' warm response to his wise and authoritative teaching methods.

An apparently stunned and saddened Philibert is quoted as saying, "One of the basic principles of documentary is to avoid setting up a relationship of subordination between filmmaker and subject. If you pay the people you are filming, they become your employees. Are we going to let money pervert everything?"

At first blush, Philibert's point seems entirely orthodox and sensible (and naive). But wait a minute. Haven't we all noticed and applauded the entry of documentaries to the art house mainstream?

Didn't audiences happily pay admission to see the brilliant and quirky kids of Spellbound and the tortured souls of Capturing the Friedmans? How exactly are the "performances" of Georges Lopez or David Friedman different from those of Sean Penn or Charlize Theron? Don't we respond to documentary subjects with the same emotions we bring to good performances by professional actors? Shouldn't the non-fiction heroes get some credit if audiences find their stories compelling and believable? Indeed, if virtually all films are narratives with characters, documentary subjects face greater hurdles to grabbing our attention because they must perform without the safety net of a script or repeated takes or flattering lighting.

As it happens, Philibert's production company did offer Lopez E37,500 for his services in promoting the film, but not for his role as a subject of the film. (Lopez rejected the offer and filed his lawsuits.) Although my initial instinct was to side with Philibert (and the film's many disillusioned fans in France), I now wonder why we're so shocked--shocked!--that Lopez, whom the film romanticizes as a paragon of wisdom and patience, has financial needs and desires like everyone else.

In search of a perspective on this issue, I contacted Brett Ingram, co-producer of Monster Road, the best doc of last month's Slamdance fest.

"Documentarians have been arguing about the ethics of this issue for a long time," Ingram said in an email response. "Does paying a subject affect the truthfulness of biases of the film?" wrote Ingram, who preferred not to discuss arrangements he has made with Bruce Bickford, the subject of his film.

Ingram also pointed out that even critically acclaimed docs often struggle to generate revenue. "Does the subject agree to go into debt with the filmmaker to finance the film? Does the filmmaker agree to pay the subject once profits reach a certain point? At what point?"

"Whatever the decision, it's probably something that needs to be decided and agreed upon at the start," Ingram concluded, expressing a sentiment with which the personnel of To Be and To Have would probably concur.

This weekend, two excellent film festivals will get underway in Durham--right next door to each other, in fact.

First, there's the ever more essential Ms. Films festival. Begun in 2001 on a shoestring and a prayer at the Cat's Cradle by Corky Goldsmith and Jim Haverkamp, this event by and about women filmmakers was continued and expanded last year with Niku Arbabi and others taking the reins.

This year's fest reflects the continued growth of the event, and its staying power. Also unchanged is its fervent commitment to providing instruction to the many aspiring filmmakers in the area. To that end, there will be workshops on topics ranging from animation to the basics of sound and lighting. Also, visiting filmmaker Pat Doyen will share her techniques for making films by manipulating the film stock without the use of a camera.

And of course, there will be movies to watch. Two sessions, in fact, consisting of 25 short films by women. Among the highlights: Chapel Hill native Tess Ernst's prize-winning The Drive North; Joyce Ventimiglia and Jim Haverkamp's Flicker hit, The Hotdog Man: A Case Study; and three animated shorts from UNC prof Francesca Talenti, whose The Planets played last year at Sundance.

The Ms. Films festival will run Feb. 27-29 at Durham Arts Council in downtown Durham. Program information can be found at www.msfilms.org.

Also this weekend, right around the corner at the Carolina Theatre, is the North Carolina Jewish Film Festival, which will begin as usual after sundown Saturday. Program director Jim Carl reports that submissions were higher than ever this year, with triple the number of foreign submissions from years past.

The film with the highest profile is Taking Sides, which is one of the festival's three opening night films and is scheduled for a regular release next month. Taking Sides, from Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (Sunshine), tells the true story of Wilhelm Furtwangler, the famed orchestra conductor in Nazi Germany who was called to account for his complicity during the war. Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves, Insomnia) plays the conductor, and Harvey Keitel is his chief American interrogator. Moritz Bliebtreu--Germany's answer to Tom Hanks--also appears.

Another opening night film is the French post-Holocaust drama Almost Peaceful, which Carl reports received the highest rating of all the films viewed by the selection committee. Elsewhere on the program, there is a documentary called My Terrorist, in which Israeli filmmaker Yulie Cohen-Gersten revisits a 1978 Palestinian terrorist attack in which she was wounded. The not-very-Jewish Billie Holiday is featured in Strange Fruit, a documentary about the anti-lynching song of the same name, which was penned by Jewish activist Abel Meeropol. Another promising film comes out of left field (or, in this case, Australia). It's called Welcome to the Waks Family, and it concerns a Lubavitch family with 17 children. How to care for so many tykes? How to feed them and how to remember their birthdays?

These films and more will play this weekend at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Go to www.carolinatheatre.org/ncjff/ for more info. EndBlock

  • To be and to get paid

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