It's A Hard Doc Life
by Anthony Kaufman
Unless the subject is frats, Madonna, or Courtney Love, documentaries
can get a bad rap. Often snubbed by programmers and audiences alike
simply because they are in the non-fiction format, fantastic films get
overlooked. In the case of the 1998 LAIFF, festival brass point to a lack
of non-narrative options. "We could not find documentaries that had
not already premiered elsewhere," Robert Faust told indieWIRE on
Saturday, "meaning that there just wasn't as much to choose from as
in prior years." There were roughly 100 feature-length docs (over 50
minutes) submitted to the festival and only two films were chosen
to reel in LA: Bennett Miller's "The Cruise" and Susan Koch's "City
In an introduction before Saturday morningís "The Cruise" screening,
Betsy A. McLane, Executive Director of the International Documentary
Association, stated, "There is a dearth of documentaries this year."
Even with docs like "Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan,
Supermasochist" winning the LAIFF's top award last year and "Off
the Menu: The Last Days of Chasens" closing the fest, and directors
like Errol Morris and Barbara Koppel mainstreaming the form, most
documentary filmmakers must still challenges. In the case of the
festival, Miller and Koch were programmed in single 10:30 am slots,
as opposed to more "flashy" films grabbing the evening slots. "It's a bummer," admits Faust, "It's something that we need to change. We
were going to add a last minute midnight showing for "The Cruise,"
and we found out that we couldn't." Although Faust's heart is in the
right place, preference for added screening opportunities went to
the sold-out comedy, "Starf*cker" and the hallucinatory dark pic,
Amidst the congratulatory glow of his first and only screening,
Bennett Miller confessed, "It would have been nice to get another
screening, but there were 1,200 films [submitted] and to be one of
them is very fortunate." Miller's first feature film "The Cruise"
follows Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a tour guide on New York's Gray
Line, who is a sort of cross between German poet Rainer Maria
Rilke and a kvetching, philosophizing Woody Allen. As "Speed"
fights off the evils of the paralyzing "anti-Cruise" and his
own isolation in a New York he thrives on and despises, the result
is a cinematic trip both hilarious and tragic, witty and profound.
(One audience member sitting next to me uttered an audible "wow"
at multiple times during the screening). The film cleary resonated
with the full house audience, eliciting extended applause and cheers.
Bennett, a one man crew shooting on digital video in black and white
(then bumped up to 35mm) took three years to complete the film and
didn't realize how much "it speaks to people" until he had his first
rough-cut screening. "It does seem to have some mystical gravitational
attraction for people. If given an opportunity, it will find an audience.
I think it can live in a small theater for a long time."
While Miller is a 32 year-old NYU film grad accepting business
cards, applause and looking towards a future career, Susan Koch
and her husband-producer, Christopher Koch, are an experienced team,
having received five Emmy Awards with the notable 1996 "Blacklist:
Hollywood on Trial" on their resume. "City at Peace" is a dramatic,
emotional portrait of Washington D.C. youths of all races and classes,
getting together to perform a theater project. Although the Kochs
have worked steadily in broadcast television and have name recognition
in the industry, they still find it a daunting task to make an
independent feature documentary. "Even though we've won 5 Emmys,
we've won a Peabody, it doesn't matter. That's what I've found. In
this market, it doesn't matter." The Kochs worked in spurts over
a year, getting bits of cash at a time, working on paid gigs in-between,
and in so doing so, remained independent, but she explains, despite
"loving having your own control, it's a real struggle." Not used to the
marketing side of the indie world (the LAIFF is Koch's first film
festival), she laments the documentarian's struggle, "Documentaries
aren't considered to be as viable." But Koch, like Miller, is committed
to bringing her film to the theatrical audience that she knows exists
for her film. "I'm determined to get this out," she said. "It may be an
unconventional route, and I'm realistic to know that this is not the
kind of film that becomes a theatrical blockbuster, but I think it will
reach some people, and people have seen it and they have been very
moved by it."
"On one hand, you want to do what you want, on the other hand, you
have to know what the market wants," says Koch "so there's that
balance you have to strike." Arriving at that balance is no easy
task. Koch evokes the "Hoop Dreams" phenomenon, a film that showed
the opportunites for documentaries theatrically, but also raised
the financial stakes with distributors expecting similarly astounding
receipts. For both the novice Miller and the experienced Koch,
navigating the theatrical world will be a challenge. Their road is
an especially difficult one, always much harder than the narrative
feature, but as "Speed" Levitch said, "let's roll!" -- and these
documentarians will be ready.