Documentarian Junge in the spotlight at Aspen Filmfest
Daniel Junge is a busy man these days. If you haven’t heard of the Academy Award-winning documentarian yet, you probably will in the coming months, when four feature-length documentaries he has directed will be released, along with two more he’s produced.
The Denver-based filmmaker is in town for the Aspen Filmfest, which is honoring Junge with its Documentary Spotlight at the festival. He’ll be on stage at the Wheeler Opera House for two events: a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Loren Jenkins on Saturday and a Q&A on Monday with a surprise screening of one of his new films.
His in-the-works or soon-to-be-released projects include “Brick by Brick: A Lego Brickumentary,” about the Lego phenomenon and its passionate hobbyists, “Fight Church,” about a New York-based minister who uses mixed martial arts to spread a Christian message, “Alpha Boys,” about the Jamaican school for boys that birthed modern reggae, and another about the late daredevil Evel Knievel, made with “Jackass” creator Johnny Knoxville. The films he’s producing at the moment are “Rolling Papers,” about the early days of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana and one about journalists killed in Libya.
“Most of them have been gestating for quite some time, and it just so happens that it’s a big year and a lot of them are finishing up,” Junge said. “It’s just a crazy year. I threw a lot of stuff against the wall and a lot of it is sticking, which is great as a filmmaker.”
The breadth of topics in his current projects is wide, but not surprising given his past work. Junge is part muckraker and investigative journalist and part portraitist. But mostly he’s just a storyteller with an inspired touch, instead of a niche.
Local audiences were first introduced to Junge at Shortsfest, Aspen Film’s annual springtime short film festival. He screened “Come Back to Sudan,” a film following one of the Lost Boys of Sudan back to his homeland, in 2008, and then “Saving Face” in 2011. “Saving Face,” about women scarred in acid attacks in Pakistan, went on to win the Oscar for documentary short. He had previously scored an Oscar nomination for “The Last Campaign of Gov. Booth Gardner,” about the former Washington governor’s push for right-to-die legislation.
His previous features have included “They Killed Sister Dorothy,” a 2008 film about an American nun murdered in the Amazon while fighting deforestation and advocating for sustainable development, and “Chiefs,” his 2002 breakthrough debut following young men on a high school basketball team from a Native American reservation in Wyoming. The striking thing about his work is his ability to get access to people and the way he gets them to open up. In “Sister Dorothy,” for example, he memorably captures the cartoonishly corrupt attorneys defending her murderers in freewheeling interviews as well as her grieving family and friends. In “Chiefs,” he gets the teens to open up about their interior lives and their struggle between leaving their reservation.
“Most of it is just time spent with the subjects and also just sort of obsessive, single-mindedness of going after what I want or need for a film and for abandoning all other aspects of life to get what I need for a film,” Junge explained.
Junge also has made a habit of partnering with people in the community he’s making a film about. On “Saving Face,” for instance, he worked with a co-director who had local ties in Pakistan. On “Sister Dorothy,” he brought on a local producer to help navigate the red tape and politics of Brazil. Those kinds of partnerships allowed him a greater degree of access and legitimacy to get the kinds of deep insights and access that separates his films from others. That helps, but embedding himself in a story and sticking with it, he said, is the key.
“What I tell young film students is, ‘If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do it. But if you want to be a filmmaker, grab hold of a story and don’t let go,’” he said. “That’s the single-mindedness you need to get these done and to get the kinds of things you see in my films.”
Some of his films have been born out of pitches from others. “Fight Church,” a short version of which is currently online as an NYTimes.com Op-Doc, began that way.
“A producer friend approached me and said, ‘I have a friend who has a fight ministry,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sign me up,’” Junge recalled.
Others, like the Knievel movie, are passion projects. Knievel was a boyhood hero to Junge. On “Brick By Brick,” a producer pitched him on doing a something on a Lego convention, and Junge saw a larger story about Lego fanatics.
Junge credits “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James as his biggest influence. That film, along with the independent filmmakers of the early 1990s, such as Stephen Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, inspired him to make the kind of immersive, DIY movies that have become his calling card.
“There was an ethos at that time that these films don’t have to be made within the Hollywood system, that you can create your own vision in your own film,” he said. “‘Hoop Dreams’ did that in the documentary realm and proved it didn’t matter how much money you had — what mattered was embedding yourself in a story and sticking with it,” he said.
While documentaries were once thought of as boring schoolroom fare, blending old footage and talking heads, these days the best documentaries tell stories in a narrative fashion, ushering in an era of great non-fiction filmmaking. Today’s affordable filmmaking tools — where one can shoot on a handheld digital camera and edit on a laptop — have opened up the field to anyone with a story to tell.
“If this is the golden age of documentary, I’m not the first to say it,” Junge said, crediting what he calls “the democratization of the industry” through the advent of digital.
Also, in just the past few years, new audiences have emerged for documentary. Films like Junge’s can find viewers and turn a profit without any distribution in theaters or on television. “Fight Church,” for example, is being distributed on iTunes and video-on-demand, and will be streaming on Netflix later this fall.
“‘Fight Church’ is going to be seen by a lot of people, and is going to be successful, and it’s making money and it doesn’t have any traditional broadcast associated with it,” Junge said. “This is a brave new world of documentary.”
When Aspen Film invited Junge to return here for the Documentary Spotlight this year, he couldn’t turn them down, though perhaps he should have, given all he has going on in the editing room.
“The last thing I should be doing right now is taking time off and going to a festival, because I’m in the throes of finishing four films,” he said, “but I didn’t hesitate.”
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