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June 16, 2000 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: 3rd Docfest Serves Non-Fiction in Intimate Setting

FESTIVALS: 3rd Docfest Serves Non-Fiction in Intimate Setting

Amy Goodman



(indieWIRE/6.16.2000) -- DOCFEST Founder and Executive Director Gary Pollard says he started DOCFEST in 1998 "to get the general public interested in documentaries." David Leitner, a documentary filmmaker who has served as DOCFEST's Co-programmer and spokesman since its inception, says his goal is to make DOCFEST "a festival by filmmakers for filmmakers." This year, DOCFEST is three years old and for better or for worse, the festival still feels more like an intimate, exclusive artists club than a festival for the masses.


Still, DOCFEST has evolved substantially since its 1998 New York debut. Attendance has steadily increased (several screenings were sold out this year), the board has multiplied, and according to Pollard, "For the first time we knew from the start that we would have enough money to afford the (DGA) theater." The festival also doled out its first cash prizes this year, courtesy of sponsor Skyy Vodka. On the festival's closing night, a $10,000 Jury Prize was awarded to Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson for their film "Well Founded Fear," which premiered at Sundance 2000. A $5,000 Audience Award went to Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker for their "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" (another Sundance entry) and Gwen and David Shapiro's "Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale" was deemed "first runner-up" for the Audience Award.


The festival's five-person jury included Nicole Guillemet, VP of the Sundance Institute and Co-director of the Sundance Film Festival; Rory Kennedy, documentary filmmaker; Leonard Lopate, host of WNYC's "New York and Company;" John Reilly, filmmaker and educator; and John Roche, chair of The New York Documentary Center board.


Despite these progressive changes, the Festival has to contend with a few challenges. People who go to festivals to see pre-sold documentaries in a theater are mostly that small percentage of people who make documentaries, want to make them, or know someone who makes them; by and large the general public steers clear. The other issue is that DOCFEST's line-up is cherry-picked by Pollard and Leitner from docs at Sundance, Berlin, and the few submissions from HBO, Winstar, and board members -- so you'd better like their taste!


Otherwise, the festival seems more like a screening series with a loud curatorial voice than a community festival striving to include a diverse audience. Leitner and Pollard are well aware of the side effects of their undemocratic programming process and are debating the possibilities of adding programmers or holding an open call for submissions. Leitner argues, "A curatorial hand is still a value in this world. . . Although it means we set ourselves up as being elitist and closing out all kinds of material, which is valid." Another problem, he believes, "It's hard to find people of comparable sophistication and insight who are available for not a lot of money and a lot of work."


This year's Festival featured a solid group of seventeen films, eight New York premieres and eight U.S. premieres. The line-up included films made by Russian, Argentinian, English, Israeli, and Canadian filmmakers, nine US-made films, three films about musicians, several personal diarist films, three profiles of writers, and selects from a network documentary series.


Standouts include the festival award-winners: with a subtle, patient, probing eye, "Well Founded Fear" filmmakers Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson produced a deeply effective portrait of America's flawed Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy," a historical documentary for broadcast on PBS's American Experience series, constructs an even-handed examination of an infamous racially charged trail in Depression-stricken Alabama without simplifying it into a black and white story of good vs. evil.


Other highlights include Pola Rappaport's beautifully shot and edited "Family Secret," a personal film about finding her long lost brother, and Sundance entry "Stranger With A Camera," Elizabeth Barret's refreshingly well-written doc about the moral dilemma inherent in making art out of other people's misery. Barret comes from a part of Kentucky where a poor landowner murdered a documentary filmmaker during the Depression when international media descended upon the land, depicting it as if it was the ninth circle of American hell. She asks valid questions of herself and her fellow social activist filmmakers: "Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What is the responsibility of any of us who make the images of other people and put them to our own uses?"


The inclusion of a "best of" CBS News Sunday Morning screening was certainly the most unusual programming in this year's festival, and perhaps the most rewarding. Sunday Morning, which has been around for a victorious twenty-one years, is at the very least an anomaly in network television and a standard-bearer which remains unmatched by long-form network documentaries. Some of the best broadcast writing and storytelling on television comes from this show, and its earnest, modest, succinct style is a lesson in filmmaking for us all. Unfortunately, the screening, scheduled at 3pm on the nicest Saturday in New York this year, was pitifully under-attended, but those who made it were treated to a Q&A with the program's host, editor, and top producers.


Other popular films included Jem Cohen's "Benjamin Smoke," an achingly beautiful film that suffered from a lack of emotional arc (coming to theaters next month via Cowboy Booking); Jane Treays' probing "One Man, Six Wives & Twenty-Nine Chidren," which was a hit with audiences ("Look! Polygamists!"), and Michel Negroponte's "W.I.S.O.R.," about a semi-autonomous robo-welder built to "save" New York City from its dangerously inadequate steam pipe system.


Like all good movie robots, the robot, "W.I.S.O.R." has a mechanical-sounding voice and it narrates the film, which is a good idea, but occasionally annoying. The film is at its best when it juxtaposes grainy, black and white footage from early-20th-century New York, when optimistic engineers built the steam pipe system, with shots of terrifying steam explosions in a contemporary, seemingly post-apocalyptic New York.


The Festival fell short of the mark with their opening and closing night films: "Saluzzi: Composition for Bandoneon and Three Brothers," and "Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment" respectively. "Saluzzi," a profile of an Argentinian bandoneon player, was clearly not the hard-hitting, high profile film that the festival needed as a launch. Beautifully shot but under-baked, the film screened in two packed theaters at BAM on May 31st and was followed by a party at the BAMCafe. "Cinema Verite," which screened to a sold-out crowd on Tuesday, June 6, was ironically a didactic film, almost totally bereft of good verite moments about the history of verite filmmaking. It was a well-intentioned love letter, but a bit sentimental. More impressive was the too-short Q&A with giants of documentary film including Bob Drew, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple, William Greaves, and Terry McCartney Filgate.


This year's Special Guest at the Festival was the always-entertaining, seminal documentary filmmaker Ricky Leacock ("Louisiana Story," "Primary") who stormed out of the Festival's New Technology Showcase (about digital TV's 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio) during a Kodak sample screening, exclaiming, "I didn't fly all the way from France for a Kodak commercial!" He also led an enjoyable dialogue with other docfest directors on Sunday morning.


Docfest has a lot to offer a filmmaker. Participating directors are treated like royalty by festival officials and intelligent, elite audiences who want to think. Although the films only screen once, the Festival schedule allows enough time after every screening for a Q&A moderated by Leitner, followed by a reception. The DGA is a great venue for docfest and it may have to suffice as the festival's home, although it is not as visible or accessible to the downtown, adventurous film-going crew. However, it is incredibly hard to pay someone $10 to sit in a dark theater and watch a documentary when you're so close to Central Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. Next year's docfest will be in April, which should help ticket sales significantly.


If Pollard, Leitner, and the DOCFEST team can democratize its programming process to include the tastes of more people (while maintaining curatorial integrity), find money for more publicity, push for opening and closing night films that ensure big events, and continue earnestly striving to provide New York audiences with the best docs around, DOCFEST could be a leading force in the documentary world.


[Amy Goodman is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker.]

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