There is no shortage of fantastic documentaries. Film festivals devoted to nonfiction are thriving; accomplished narrative filmmakers from Noah Baumbach to Debra Granik are trying their hand at movies about real people; and major entertainment players from Netflix to HBO are aggressively supporting docs.
But there are still more nonfiction movies than the marketplace can bear. And it’s especially challenging for those films that don’t fit into already preconceived molds.
As one award-winning documentary filmmaker told me, "I keep hearing from distributors, ‘It’s amazing, but we’re in a different space right now.’ What that ‘space’ is, I’m not totally sure." The filmmaker noted that there seemed to be plenty of slots open for documentaries about celebrities, entertainers, movies, "social issues du jour," and "tasteful but toothless book reports," he added, but little space for other non-fiction efforts that exist outside the box.
So before we start a new year, and another festival circuit with doc-heavy Sundance right around the corner, let’s not forget some of the terrific documentaries that have yet to be purchased by distributors. If they’re so good, why haven’t they been bought and marketed to U.S. audiences? There are a myriad of reasons — none of them insurmountable.
(Full disclosure, I found and saw some of these films not as a journalist, but as a film festival programmer.)
"Toto and His Sisters"
Winner of documentary prizes at festivals around the world (Budapest, Camden, Jihlava, Leipzig, Munich Sarajevo, Warsaw, Zurich), this heartbreaking observational film chronicles the lives of three Romany siblings in Bucharest. With their mother in prison for selling drugs, Ana (17), Andreea (14) and Toto (10), an adorable, innocent kid with a knack for hip-hop "popping," are left to survive on their own.
Living in squalor and surrounded by junkies, it looks impossible for them to survive. As Ana says, with utter resignation, "Oh, bitter life, look what you’re doing to me." But international Emmy award-winning director Alexander Nanau ("The World According To Ion B") offers an intimacy and warmth that buoys the proceedings.
Indeed, some of the strongest scenes are captured by Andreea herself, who takes on the role of cameraperson, and in the process, seems to regain some control of her own life. Documentary cinema is rife with stories of distressed and deprived children, but as Variety’s Jay Weissberg wrote about Toto, "To Nanau’s enormous credit, he’s made viewers feel completely invested in these kids." Unfortunately, U.S. distributors may have stayed away thus far because of the harrowing subject matter and the subtitles. But "Toto and His Sisters" is an important film, with deep resonances for any country — including our own — which has left many of its children, and their parents, without care.
Listed 14th on Indiewire’s survey of Best Undistributed Films of the year, and singled out by such esteemed critics as Sam Adams, Jason Bailey and David Fear, "Pervert Park" plumbs the depths of a Florida trailer park whose sole inhabitants are convicted sex offenders.
The film won a Special Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance for its unflinching look at an eclectic group of so-called "sexual predators," who are portrayed as both criminals and victims of society. Directed by Scandinavian directors Frida and Lasse Barkfors, the film features powerful stories of abuse and suffering without undo judgment. In his Park City review, Variety’s Peter Debruge noted, "Most will go in with minds set about rapists and child molesters, only to find their assumptions challenged by this tough-to-watch, even-trickier-to-market pic’s daring approach and the courageous candor of its subjects."
The Film Sales Company’s Jason Ishikawa said the film has played "tremendously well all over the world" — in Denmark, for example, it was the second highest viewed documentary on television after Alex Gibney’s "Going Clear."
"After its reception and Special Jury Prize at Sundance I am, quite frankly, taken aback by its reception in the U.S. in regards to distributors," admitted Ishikawa. But given the subject matter, he added, "It has been an easy film for some to say ‘no’ to." According to Ishikawa, cable broadcasters have said films dealing with violent sexual situations are "a no-go for advertisers."
"The Closer We Get"
Winner of the top prize at Hot Docs, North America’s largest nonfiction festival, and voted Best UK Film at London’s Open City fest, "The Closer We Get" is Scottish director Karen Guthrie’s moving personal essay about her convoluted family life.
The revelations and unburied secrets are doled out with the narrative perspicacity of a Hollywood drama: Things really get moving after when we learn her mother has suffered a stroke and her elderly father, divorced from her mother, moves back in to take care of his ex-wife and also has an African-born son.
A vivid chronicle of family dysfunction and post-colonial confusion, the film is a profound and universal look at the complicated bonds between husband and wife, parents and children.
Reviews have been solid: The Guardian’s 4-star blurb had this to say: "There have been few more perceptive and empathetic non-fiction portraits of the hold a particular kind of patrician male can exert over those around them. Some scenes, inevitably, make painful viewing, but Guthrie proves fearless about peering into those interpersonal grey areas most clans shy away from." British trade Screen Daily, however, suggests a challenge for a filmed family that isn’t as outrageous as, say, the Friedmans or the Beales — one that is "more relatable than remarkable," writes critic Charles Grant. "Surely that’s the point, but it’s not much of a marketing hook."
Too bad, in today’s marketplace, that storytelling has to take a backseat to easy promotional pegs.
Filmmaker David Shapiro, co-director of the 2001 Spirit Award winning documentary "Keep the River on Your Right," returns with "Missing People," a surprising and powerful portrait of a New York art curator who has suffered through depression and insomnia ever since her teenage brother was killed in 1978.
The unsolved murder has left her literally blocked — aptly illustrated by the large square Lego block she labors over in the wee hours of the night. It also appears to fuel her obsession with the violent artwork of New Orleans "gangster" painter Roy Ferdinand. Beautifully shot by award-winning cinematographer Lisa Rinzler and produced by documentary veteran Alan Oxman, "Missing Persons" won the top nonfiction prize at the Hamptons International Film Festival and a Special Jury Mention at DOC NYC. The film traverses tough terrain, features a complicated protagonist, and may be "hard to encapsulate," as Variety’s Dennis Harvey writes, "yet [it’s] sure to engross audiences who find their way to it."
According to Shapiro, there has been keen interest from buyers, but he’s concerned that distributors "should trust their audience more," he said. "I think there’s enough ‘space’ to champion films that push documentary form, feature beautiful, complex, middle-aged women as main characters, traffic in ambiguity and trust the audience to think for themselves. Every film has its own journey, some take longer."
"In the Underground" and "Behemoth"
Both touching upon China’s unquenchable industrial thirst for resources and its human toll, these two documentaries demonstrate the embarrassment of riches currently to be found in China’s nonfiction filmmaking scene. But alas, U.S. media markets certainly can’t take on two brilliant films about Chinese coalmining.
So far, however, neither appears to be slated for any kind of U.S. distribution. "In the Underground," winner of an honorable mention at Cinema Du Reel and the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, is an under-the-radar gem, made by first-time feature documentarian Song Zhantao, a veteran Beijing TV director.
In Time Out Chicago, writer Michael Smith called it "an immersive film about an extremely dangerous profession that dazzles for its cinematic qualities as well as its emotional and sociological ones." The film’s mix of hardscrabble realism with exquisitely-photographed images of the underground’s hellish depths have drawn comparisons to Wang Bing, Wu Wenguang, Jia Zhangke, and Zhao Liang, director of "Behemoth." A more overtly poetic art-doc, "Behemoth," a Venice 2015 premiere, was hailed by international and even U.S. critics. Variety’s Jay Weissberg wrote, "Zhao’s quiet yet powerful indignation will play to the arthouse crowd, and his striking visuals should ensure that ‘Behemoth’ receives berths beyond environmental fests." Let’s hope that at least one of the films will land at a museum near you.
"Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice"
An audience and critics favorite in Rotterdam, where it had its world premiere, Dutch filmmaker Daan Veldhuizen’s deceptively appealing encounter with villagers in a small Laotian town as they begin to welcome Western tourists is far more perceptive and sly than it first seems.
For one, Veldhuizen is wholly cognizant of his own camera’s touristic gaze, making sure to include moments that convey the subjects’ ambiguous feelings toward the project. Secondly, the film refuses to demonize the encroaching Westerns or exoticize the rural Easterners, opting for a more complicated portrait of backpackers and Laotians of all stripes and motivations.
Winner of a Special Jury Mention at Mexico City’s DocsDF festival and a hit with local Dutch reviewers ("a beautifully shot and very relevant documentary about the impact of globalization," according to Amsterdam’s daily Het Parool), "Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice" has been tragically underseen in North America (home to many backpackers), playing only at the Chicago International and Margaret Mead Film Festivals.
"Something Better to Come"
After receiving a Special Jury Award at IDFA 2014, Polish director Hanna Polak’s vivid chronicle "Something Better to Come" is one of the most award-winning docs of the past 12 months, with over 20 festival awards (from Documenta Madrid to Hot Springs), and most recently, a Producers Guild of America nomination, alongside such doc bigwigs as "Amy," "The Look of Silence," "The Hunting Ground," and "Meru." Made over 14 years, Polak’s deep-dive into the life of a girl living at a massive garbage dump outside Moscow has drawn critical raves.
Screen’s Mark Adams called it "a strikingly visceral and plaintively moving documentary that is arresting right from its first powerful moments." The L.A. Times’ called it an "eloquent portrait," while Newsweek called it "a great coming-of-age story — ‘Boyhood’ from a trash can."
With pull-quotes like the above, you’d expect U.S. broadcasters or distributors to be jumping aboard "Something Better to Come." But Films Transit’s Diana Holtzberg, the documentary’s sales rep, said subtitles have been a hindrance for buyers. It’s hard to believe that words on a screen would alienate audiences from the film’s wrenching story. But distributors, it seems, aren’t willing to give them the chance.