fiba 46th SFIFF Documentary Features 2003

Is this the GOLDEN AGE for documentary filmmakers?

Photo journalist Robert Capa witnessed the Spanish Civil War
in "In Love and War."
by fiba SF correspondant Thomas Filmyer

Dateline Hollywood, 23 March 2003:

"And the winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature goes to…. Michael Moore: "Bowling for Columbine!"

Michael Moore accepts his Academy Award for "Bowling for Columbine"and scolds
President Bush
for the war on Iraq.
The Michigan-born filmmaker bounds to the stage already crowded by nominees in this category, to accept the award. During his acceptance speech, Moore sharply denounces President Bush's war on Iraq, and the Hollywood audience responds with a mixture of cheers and boos. Popular funnyman Steve Martin undercuts Moore's plea for non-violence by joking about the portly filmmaker's weight, thus avoiding any attempt to cloud the narcissistic affair with thoughtful commentary.

Lost in the confusion of controversy is the REAL story of the evening: feature documentary filmmaking has never been more accessible (or profitable) to aspiring producers. Home Box Office (US-based cable channel) regularly broadcasts feature-length docs by independent and studio-funded filmmakers, thus raising the profile of the genre that was previously relegated to the backwaters of PBS (Public Broadcasting System). Two docs by Oliver Stone, "Commadante" (profile of Fidel Castro), and "Persona non Grata" (Palestinian Intifada) are scheduled to broadcast on HBO this summer. As of May 2003, 'Columbine' has grossed over $21 million domestically and will soon be released on DVD.

Environmental artist Andrew Goldsworthy's work in "Rivers & Tides."

Documentary features have long been a staple of American 'art house' theater schedules. Repertory cinema chains such as Ritz Theaters in the Philadelphia area, and Landmark Cinemas in the San Francisco Bay area have always provided a reliable outlet for mainstream docs. The success of films such as: Wim Wender's "Buena Vista Social Club" and Moore's 1989 hit "Roger & Me" make documentary programming a viable choice for rep house schedulers. In San Francisco, "Rivers & Tides," the sublime profile of Scottish environmental artist Andrew Goldsworthy has played continuously for over a year at the Roxie Theater in SF and at the Elmwood in Berkeley.

Franny Armstrong, the London-based producer/director of "Drowned Out", feels that "everything has changed since 'Bowling for Columbine' was released. All these people who put money into feature films now realize that you can make money on documentaries these days." The British Film Council and various European arts commissions will now consider funding documentary films with equal enthusiasm as they accord to dramatic features.

Jaisindhi villager 'drowned out' by the Narmada River Project.

"Drowned Out," Armstrong's second documentary feature, was the runner-up for Best Documentary Feature at the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival. In the festival program, Kathleen Denny wrote: "The giant Narmada River dam project was designed to divert water to cities and in the process displace over 250,000 farmers. Villagers counter with rallies, hunger strikes or a simple refusal to leave their homes. Crafted on a shoestring budget, this intimate, urgent documentary unravels the question, 'Progress for whom?'"

"The camera," wrote Denny, "details the soon-to-be evicted villagers of Jaisindhi, their ancestral forests, fertile land, and children who splash in Mother Narmada. The government offers only a resettlement plot with salty water or an opportunity to scratch out an existence as a city slum dweller. A six-year legal battle ensues in the Indian Supreme Court as bureaucrats and villagers struggle to control their destiny and that of a river."

Writer/activist Arundhati Roy lends her support to the protesters.

One commonly held perception that many people have about advocacy video is that they tend to 'over-sell'' the filmmaker's point of view, thereby undermining their own credibility. This was the case in the recent media overage of the Iraq War. Journalists who were 'embedded' with the coalition forces were quick to gloss over civilian casualties in favor of stories that played up heroic achievements and humanitarian efforts by the US-lead invaders.

Case in point: the widely discredited 'rescue' of Army Lt. Jessica Lynch by the US Marine Corps from a Baghdad hospital. The sham rescue was later shown to be a carefully orchestrated Pentagon photo-op at a time when support for the war effort was slipping.

Reality TV? Prez Bush re-invented as a 'war hero'.

"Anybody who makes a film," says Armstrong, "especially if it's made over a long period of time, feels strongly about the subject. Anyone who claims that they are 'unbiased' is lying. But you're not going to make a good film by only showing one side of the story. A documentary is a good way to explore complex issues because you can't really say in one line what it's all about."

"In 'Drowned Out' we let the people in charge of the dam have a lot of time to say exactly what they think because they dig their own grave. I've seen activist videos that don't present the other side of the issue and they're unsatisfying. You can't have a discussion without presenting the other side of the argument; otherwise it would be boring."

Indian Government spokesperson defends the dam project

Paul Devlin, another first-time entrant in the feature documentary category at the SFIFF, resists the temptation to 'spoon feed' the audience. His film "Power Trip" (award winner at Berlin Film Festival in 2002) follows the privatization of a formerly public utility. He knows that every issue can be seen from a variety of perspectives.

"When I was screening my film, the issue of 'balance' came up and it would polarize the audience. Some people found it refreshing that I didn't try to push a particular point of view down their throats, and others were upset that I didn't clearly advocate one argument over another. But I say 'too bad'; every important issue is complex and is likely to involve a several different points of view."

Devlin edits sports programs for CBS, ESPN, and other broadcast networks to fund his 'hobby' of documentary filmmaking. He says that these days most of the editing and post-production can be completed in the cramped confines of his Manhattan apartment. Devlin employs the 'one stop shopping' style of filmmaking. His background in the industry allows him to write, shot, edit projects such as the award-winning "Slam Nation" (about New York's vibrant poetry scene) and "Power Trip" with virtually no outside financing.

New York poetry scene in "Slam Nation"

One important factor that has lead to the rise of independent filmmaking is the advent of affordable digital video technology. In recent years, the cost of broadcast quality video cameras and post-production equipment has fallen to a level that has put feature film production within the reach of almost anyone. Documentaries are often financed on credit cards, shot on borrowed equipment, and edited at home on desktop computers.

"There's no doubt that the mini-DV format has benefited documentary filmmakers. Number one, the quality is so good, almost as good as betacam; and I was able to store all the field tapes in my small bedroom closet. Also, mini-DV has time code, so I can edit the source material on my home computer. I edited 'Power Trip' in my second bedroom." Devlin estimates that his hardware investment for this type of video project was under $20,000.

Paul Devlin screened "Power Trip" at the 46th San Francisco Int. Film Festival

"Power Trip" was the result of five trips to the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Devlin's friendship with a manager in the newly privatized electric company AES-Telasi. In the SFIFF guide, Molli Simon wrote that the film is "documentary as black comedy when the idealistic executives gamely attempt to lay a modern framework over ancient systems. The utility is faced not only with tangled nests of hazardous cables but with the snarled web of dishonest politicians, commercial and residential customers, and employees."

"The Georgian people live their lives with constant blackouts," wrote Simon, "and now are being told they must pay for the power that was always free. The people, businesses and government all steal electricity and cleverly create new forms of power piracy to counteract the systems the Americans install. The clash between large multinational company and small, impoverished nation becomes increasingly absurd. Protests, assassinations and pervasive corruption all contribute to an atmosphere of lawlessness and disorder in the capital city of Tbilisi contrasted with the serene beauty of the Caucasus mountains."

Power to the People: Piers Lewis tries to explain capitalism to ex-communists.

Devlin's connection with AES-Telasi was through a university friend. British born Piers Lewis was employed by an NGO (non-governmental organization) to help transition former Soviets citizens to the realities of 'free-market' capitalism such as paying for electricity. Devlin understands the pitfalls of aligning oneself with only one side of the issue.

"I don't know if I could have found a way to make 'Power Trip' without showing both sides of the story. It's such a complex issue and both sides have compelling arguments on their side. Viewers have even said that there's really THREE points of view: there's AES (the power company) on one side, and the government in opposition. Then there's a third party, the citizens of Tblisi, who are like a Greek chorus who are there to react to everything that goes on between the others."

"Power Trip" won The Berliner Zeitung Reader's Jury Prize in 2002.

Devlin says that 'sound bite-style journalism' cannot adequately describe the systemic corruption that he encountered in a region where competing interests vie to run the show and divide the spoils. "Part of the Georgian culture is having been conquered many times in their past. So they saw the Americans as the next conquerors and their strategy was to milk the conquerors for everything that they could.

"There's something about Georgia that seems to breed corruption; and during the Soviet era, The State was willing to subsidize unprofitable industries such as the power company. So the Georgians got very good at bending the rules to suit their needs. But now the system has changed and they can't go on with business as usual."

Georgia on his Mind: Native son Josef Stalin

Devlin prefers to use the term 'non-fiction narratives' to describe his work. "I define (non-fiction narrative) as a film that has a dramatic structure, but uses non-fiction material to tell the story. This means that I introduce a dramatic question at the start of the film, and answer that question at the end, and that defines the climax. In "Power Trip' it was difficult to find that structure. The film starts with the disconnection of electricity to the residents, then the middle part was about why there was no power available, and the over reaching question was: 'Can the Americans make it work?'

"I like to use the metaphor of a clothesline: if I keep that clothesline tight, the more I can hang on it. As long as I preserve the narrative structure, I can always return to that thread that holds everything together. And if the line goes soft, the whole thing collapses. It's really just a technique to help keep the audience engaged. It's a way to give them a reason to pay attention- 'what's going to happen next?"

Triple threat: Paul Devlin writes, shoots, and edits his projects.

Devlin intends for his video projects to be entertainment first and foremost. If his work manages to inspire, inform, provoke the audience into action- all the better. "Now that AES has seen the film, they're saying that the IMF (International Monetary Fund- the agency that promotes and funds large scale public works projects) should see this as an example of how the current models of privatization aren't working, and that these models are bad for the consumers and the investors. That would be great, I'd love for that to happen."

While Devlin was free to draw his experience in the freelance video market, Franny Armstrong made valuable friends along the way. She began production of "McLibel" (her account of the libel trial between McDonald's Corporation and two British anti-globalization activists) on borrowed equipment and with help from like-minded friends. For legal and practical reasons, they had to use actors to re-create portions of the courtroom events.

On a whim, Armstrong and her partners drew up a list of experienced directors to approach for help in filming the trial sequences. Their top choice, noted British filmmaker Ken Loach, answered their request and donated his time.

British filmmaker Ken Loach helped shoot scenes for "McLibel"

"(Loach) auditioned all the actors and directed the scenes. Before the filming began, he asked to see a rough cut of what we'd already done. And after seeing the rough cut, he said 'I've got a few pointers about your film if you're interested.' So I had an hour and a half master class with Ken Loach where he recommended scene changes and ways to introduce characters. I was so fortunate; you couldn't buy that kind of training."

Armstrong considers video as the perfect medium to raise awareness about issues that arise from the increased push towards globalization. Her bravado comes from the heart: "I want to change the world. Every injustice I see, I want to do something about it. One person making a small film can make more of a difference than one person demonstrating in a crowd. Not that there's anything wrong with demonstrating, but I feel that I can reach a lot more people when I make a film."

Franny Armstrong's first film has been seen by over 9 million people.

Armstrong has gotten great 'value' out of her shoestring budgets. Despite minimal funding from British sources, she estimates that "McLibel" has been seen by over 9 million people. Distribution has come by way of activist film festivals, grass roots political organizations, cable and satellite video networks. On one occasion, the film was shown on over 100 different media outlets in 22 countries on a single day.

"I think that it's perfectly viable to make independent films and completely ignore the mainstream media. If the mainstream media wants to by my film- great, I'm all for it. But since I own the copyright, I'm willing to give it to a cable channel for a pittance so that it gets out there and people see it."

Q&A: Armstrong explains her film while SFIFF's Joanne Parsont looks on.

The time has never been better for burgeoning documentary filmmakers. The convergence of technology, the demand for product, and the multiple outlets for documentary features has created a 'Golden Era' for documentary filmmaking. The economic, distribution, and production barriers have been torn down before us. There's no excuse - go out and make a difference!


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