INDUSTRY INSIDER: Docs Maintain High Standard, Despite Financial Challenges
By Howard Feinstein
The days when docs had their little niche off to the side of fiction flicks
just may be over. “Bowling for Columbine” has been a hit for United Artists,
and most of the non-majors have docs, largely American, on their release
slates. The paradox is that, docwise, it’s happening here and it’s not
happening here. Sundance is expanding its horizons, and an inaugural
international documentary program at January’s fest will bust the
traditional American monopoly on the genre there.
The broad scope of the Museum of Modern Art‘s second annual, and much
expanded, Documentary Fortnight (December 13-23) — 52 feature and short
titles tirelessly curated by Sally Berger and Bill Sloan — might be a
useful tool to help gauge some of the us-versus-them doc schizophrenia.
Back to March: The doc scene in this country got an unexpected jolt when
“Murder on a Sunday Morning” took the Oscar. (Remember “Promises”?) The best
doc on the American judicial system in recent memory was made by…a
Frenchman! Jean-Xavier de Lestrade had come over to find a state that would
allow him to shoot a trial inside a courtroom. He stumbled upon a feisty
public defender in Jacksonville, Florida, who was handling a textbook case
of racism, replete with stacked testimony by corrupt cops.
But, unlike most American docmakers, de Lestrade had a cushion. He arrived
with French television and institutional funding in place: TV2 and the
National Center of Cinematography. (Only later did a surprised HBO, after
viewing a cut, give him money to buy back the rights and complete
postproduction.) “Murder” has tension and a dynamic structure, not that
inert, broadcast look that has become the norm, here, in Europe, and
everywhere else: It’s global.
Not surprisingly, most of the best docs in the MoMA show are also foreign,
funded by TV and non-profit organizations abroad (not that they all work).
The American docs are generally weaker, or if well-made, frequently deal
with frivolous subject matter (I prefer not to name them). Lack of support
in our land of laissez-faire docmaking is not a catalyst for the release of
creative fluids or for the strength to tackle tough subjects. Directors must
often find private sources, and even if they find them, must still sniff
around for SOME place to show their work.
One of the MoMA masterpieces, for example, has a host of European backers.
The litany of funding sources in the end credits of veteran director Chantal
Akerman‘s “From the Other Side” (one of three of her films shown the opening
weekend) is longer than crew credits in most American projects: Arte and TV2
(France), RTBF Liege (Belgium), and SBS (Australia) among broadcasters, with
the National Center of Cinematography for French-speaking Belgium, and the
European Union’s MEDIA program coming in from the institutional side.
And the result: No typical TV aesthetic here. In this affecting look at the
horrid risks for Mexican and other Latin American migrant workers who
attempt to bypass the high fence (and high technology) locking them out of
our country, Akerman interviews her subjects, many of them survivors of
nasty desert treks, or relatives of the deceased, in straight-on, stylized
tableaux. She then switches to long, graceful, and unpredictable tracking
shots along the fence itself. Fixed funding provided a substratum for making
an artful, meaningful doc.
Another example: the deservedly lauded “Inner Tour,” by Ra’anan
Alexandrowicz, an Israeli feature in which the director tags along with a
busload of Palestinians on a tour of Israel (before the most recent
Intifada, of course). Israeli broadcaster Telad and the government’s New
Israeli Fund for Documentary came in from the ground up. Supplementing these
were TV funds from Germany, France, the U.K., Sweden, and The Netherlands,
and financial support from non-profit organizations like the (then Soros)
Open Society Institute, the Abraham Fund, and the Ostrovsky Fund
(interestingly, all from the U.S.).
And there’s the case of the medium-length “A Miner’s Tale” (Mozambique/South
Africa), co-directed by Nic Hofmeyr and Gabriel Mondlane, one of 32 works
made for the South African- based Steps for the Future anti-AIDS project
(and one of two Steps works in the MoMA show). The credits for Steps listed
12 television stations (none from this country, thank you) and 16
institutions, varying from the governments of Finland and the Netherlands to
several film institutes, UNESCO, UNICEF, and, once again, the Open Society
No easy task for the docmakers, “A Miner’s Tale” turns out to be stunning,
poignant, and — need it be stated? — relevant. Joaquim is a miner in
Johannnesburg, with a common-law wife, who had left his wife, children, and
village in Mozambique years before out of economic necessity. After
discovering that he is HIV positive, he come to grips with the disease and
protects his two families, in spite of pressures from macho pals to eschew
Television funding is not for everyone — especially those who play with
form, since the pressures for tele-accessibility for a mainstream audience
are strong all over the world. Another medium-length film in the MoMA show,
Bosnian Dutch director Rada Sesic‘s “Soske,” is too experimental for the
tube. Two government funds in The Netherlands, one federal, the other
municipal, financed this inquisitive, provocative film. On adjacent frames
appear three different exiles in Holland, one each from Burundi, Chechnya,
and Sri Lanka. While one tells his or her tale of displacement, the other
two perform a variety of daily tasks. The spectator’s eye must constantly
move to read the film.
Others take on such controversial subjects that they are considered pariahs.
Gifted Indian director Anand Patwardhan (subject of a tribute on December
20), whose three-hour “War and Peace” is the exhibition’s piece de
resistance, depends on no one except himself. (Of course, India lacks the
funding sources in European countries.) He recycles: no presales,
co-productions, or grants of any consequence. He says. “I’m heavily
dependent on the success of my own distribution after each film is made, and
I supplement this by teaching and doing lecture-cum-screening tours.”
Frightening, hilarious, and kitschy, “War and Peace” is a complex blend of
hard information and bizarre pastiche. It deals relentlessly with the recent
nuclear proliferation and (not-so-recent) nationalism in India and Pakistan
(with a brilliant side dose of our own use of nuclear weapons in Japan), set
against Mahatma Gandhi’s now ignored legacy of nonviolence. The Indian
government has tried to censor the film, especially sections that depict the
current leadership of the ruling BJP Party. Patwardhan has sold “War and
Peace” to Brooklyn’s First Run/Icarus Films, which is mulling over a
theatrical release. Methinks a solid audience exists.
Given the Indian scenario, you might think that things aren’t SO bad here.
Conditions are, however, relative. “We have an important documentary
tradition in the U.S., like cinema verite, but docs are still not
economically supported,” says Berger. “But it’s changing, like with HBO,
even the networks.” Which leads us to her choice of THE fine American doc in
the program, “Sister Helen,” by Rebecca Camissa and Rob Fruchtman.
Camissa and Fruchtman moved in with Sister Helen, a feisty, domineering
woman in recovery who became a nun late in life and runs, in her inimitable
dictatorial style, a center for male substance abusers in the South Bronx.
The directors shot loads of film, but financial help only dripped in from
six months to two years after the wrap. (They did have a tad of PBS in-kind
funding production). The first bit came from private sources, but ultimately
money arrived from NYSCA and a host of in-kind grants so they could begin
postproduction. Will “Sister Helen,” however, reach a TV or theatrical
audience and not just spin its wheels (very successfully) on the festival
Compare its fate to that of “Spellbound” (not in the MoMA show), a THINKFilm
acquisition. Director Jeffrey Blitz financed his intriguing, suspenseful,
and entertaining doc almost completely with private funds, mostly from his
brother and his own commercial work. This very special film follows seven
diverse youngsters from across the U.S. as they cram to learn enough correct
spelling to make the National Spelling Bee finals. (Their families provide a
fascinating American ethnographic study.) THINKfilm plans to open the film
The success of “Columbine” (also entertaining) may or may not have paved the
way for a plethora of docs to be released theatrically beyond those
currently scheduled. Sundance Director of Documentary Programs Diane
Weyermann is cautious, pointing out that “Hoop Dreams” didn’t lead to doc
commercial breakthroughs after it was a smash in 1994.
The question remains: Why the hell is it so tough for most worthwhile
American docs to get funded AND exhibited? (Berger notes that several of the
more esoteric works in the MoMA program are shown through galleries, and a
few shorts through Women Make Movies.) Hats off to the Documentary
Fortnight, and to the THINKFilm, United Artists, First Run/Icarus, Women
Make Movies, and other daring distributors, the galleries, the cable
broadcasters, and the Film Forums — different players in the game of
getting non-fiction out there. But docs still have to be supported from the
get-go. If we are but slaves to fiction, we will remain an insular society.
And that is a trait that feeds our hubris and gets us into serious trouble,
like that which is coming too depressingly soon to even contemplate.