PARK CITY 2001: Verité of the Day; Will The Style Surpass Survivor?
by Amy Goodman
(indieWIRE/01.25.01) -- This year, while networks hurled millions of dollars at TV schlock docs like "Survivor," comparatively few dollars went to veteran filmmakers like Chris Hegedus and D. A Pennebaker ("The War Room"), or Susan Froemke and Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens") to do their cinema verité magic. No matter: 2001 is another good year for the fly-on-the-wall style docs made famous by such celebrated Sundance entries as "Hoop Dreams" and "Brother's Keeper."
Four verité films in Documentary Competition this year -- Pennebaker/Hegedus' "Startup.com," Froemke/Maysles' "Lalee's Kin," Kenneth A. Carlson's "Go Tigers!," and newcomer Edet Belzberg's "Children Underground" -- are skillfully crafted into the kind of living, breathing films that have drawn audiences for nearly half a century. While each film has individual style, aesthetic, and subject, they share common traits -- traits that ensure that the verité audiences keep coming.
Since reality is unpredictable, one way to hedge your bets as a verité filmmaker is to find a built-in linear story and a protagonist struggling to beat the odds. Director Kenneth A. Carlson knew he had both in his hometown of Massallon, Ohio, where the sun rises and sets around the local high school's football team, the Tigers.
"I wanted to make a documentary that would keep people in their seats," Carlson said, "and to do that you either have to have a two-headed baby or narrative story structure."
In "Go Tigers!" Carlson has the latter. Fixing his lens on the town of Massillon at the start of the Tigers' football season, Carlson carefully chose three heroes to root for on the team and began chronicling their journey to fulfillment -- or frustration. He followed a pre-existing sketch of a narrative: the team goes through training, a series of games that they could win or lose, and an ending, either victorious or tragic. There were many surprises along the way but with the story's inherent dramatic tension, just enough luck, and Carlson's ability to illicit genuine emotion from his subjects, he turned the Tigers' 1999 season into a suspenseful, rousing narrative film.
Like "Go Tigers!," "Startup.com," from Chris Hegedus, D. A. Pennebaker, and newcomer Jehane Noujaim, is also driven by a built-in narrative: the protagonists' struggle to achieve the contemporary American dream. The film follows Kaleil and Tom, childhood friends who hit their mid-twenties and decide, like many of their generation, to come up with an idea for a dot-com to make them millionaires. The filmmakers track Kaleil and Tom from shaky beginnings -- when Kaleil quits his I-banking job -- then through a long and winding middle, and finally to a redemptive ending when their company explodes into a national phenomenon.
While the volatile nature of Kaleil and Tom's adventure almost ensured the filmmakers enough action to make a compelling narrative, co-directors Hegedus and Noujaim had no way of knowing exactly how the story would turn out. "It was scary for us," Hegedus says. "All we could do was hope enough things would happen to make a film."
While the filmmakers waited for things to happen, they constructed a nuanced portrait of two people, made possible by an unusual level of trust and collaboration between the filmmakers and their subjects. As it turns out, enough things do happen, and the result is a riveting narrative about friendship as well as a time capsule of the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist.
Not all verité films have such inherently clear narrative arcs as "Startup.com" and "Go Tigers!" It is not an especially structured storyline, for example, that makes or breaks Maysles Films' "Lalee's Kin," a portrait of poor uneducated, descendents of slaves, or Edet Belzberg's "Children Underground," about homeless children struggling to survive in a Bucharest subway station. Rather, the draw of these films is that they offer unusually full, intimate access into communities existing on the fringes of society, communities into which access is usually denied or feared. Within this community, the filmmakers find a charismatic, sympathetic subject to drive the film toward some psychological, sociological or spiritual truth.
When HBO asked Maysles Films in 1997 to "make a film about poverty," Susan Froemke began a search for individual people charismatic and compelling enough to personalize the issue. "All roads led to a small town in the Mississippi Delta," says Froemke (who co-directed with Deborah Dickson and Albert Maysles) where the cotton industry and illiteracy still reign supreme. There, the filmmakers found Lalee, the matriarch of a large, poor family, and Reggie Barnes, a school administrator struggling to keep his school off probation.
Throughout the film, Barnes relays his message: that if we can educate the child of the illiterate parent, we can break the cycle of poverty. And throughout the film, we see his words manifested in the daily struggle of Lalee and her kin to survive despite crippling poverty and seemingly insurmountable barriers to educating the children in her family.
Froemke believes that telling Lalee's story in cinema verité style is the most effective way to "give you an idea of what it's really like to live in poverty, to get beneath the surface of the stereotypes." Edet Belzberg, the intrepid director of "Children Underground," also felt that verité was the most powerful means of communicating the brutal battle for survival going on in a community of homeless children in Romania's capitol.
"I wanted these kids to speak for themselves, so I chose to make a verité film," she says. "It was a reaction I had to other pieces I've seen on this issue -- news magazine pieces that are all voice-over, that don't allow the viewer to participate in the deeply emotional stories of these children."
Belzberg went to Romania and found four unique, charismatic children, runaways and orphans ranging in age from 8 to 16 years old. These four are only a few in an army of forgotten children, abandoned and homeless, suffering though the wake of former President Ceaucescu's regime. Spending two months with these children, Belzberg recorded every aspect of their existence, from daily beatings, to finding water, to thoughts about life on the street and hopes for the future. Gaining emotional access to children who have no reason to trust anyone and allowing them to express themselves, Belzberg shows us an utterly powerless community desperately in need of help, and also creates a tribute to the inexplicable strength of the human spirit.
Anyone who likes cinema verité who's been watching television this year might be concerned for the form's future: how can true verité filmmaking hold out against the proliferation of biographies, "reality" programs, talking heads, narrators, gimmicks, freaks, and games? However, if we are to judge the health of verité by it's representation at Sundance this year, it appears to be alive and well, burrowing underground into unknown territories where we're not supposed to be, capturing the great odysseys and epics of everyday people's lives, and courtesy of HBO ("Children Underground") and Artisan ("Startup.com"), coming soon to screens near you.
[Amy Goodman is a documentary producer and freelance writer.]