Filmfest documentaries: challenging, inspiring
September 19, 2006
The documentaries at this year’s Aspen Filmfest are an eclectic mix of stories from places all over the globe.
Among them, there is a portrait of Sudanese refugees making their way to the United States after escaping the throes of civil war; a window into the world of Christian Evangelicals seen through the eyes of children at a camp in North Dakota; and an odyssey through the Rocky Mountain West exploring the impact of natural gas drilling on some 35 million acres of federal land.
Amidst this diversity, Filmfest executive director Laura Thielen says all the films ” the largest lineup of documentaries in the festival’s history ” share one thing: passion. The passion of resourceful filmmakers driven to capture their one-of-a-kind stories. The vibrant passion of the subjects in the films, among them a group of humanitarians who travel around the globe to war-torn regions, as well as the late champion of peace John Lennon.
Thielen expects all of the films she and her staff have selected to incite a passionate response from festival audiences.
“You want to open new doors for people,” she says. “As a film festival, it’s our responsibility to open those doors for you. Although sometimes you’ll wish we hadn’t opened them.”
Basalt resident Mark Harvey exemplifies the type of passion needed for documentary filmmaking.
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Appalled by the sweeping changes that are taking place in the Rocky Mountain West as a result of the large-scale natural gas drilling endorsed by the current Presidential administration, Harvey set out to make “A Land Out of Time” ” a film he hopes riles people up to fight.
To research his film Harvey talked with energy experts and federal employees and delved into thousands of federal documents. The heart of the movie, however, rests in the interviews he did with ranchers, hunters and environmentalists ” all people who cherish the land, and whose lives are being drastically affected by the drilling.
The motivation was never about money, Harvey says. He raised all of the financing for the hour-long film through private donors, and if it doesn’t get picked up by a distributor, Harvey plans to try to distribute it himself on a grassroots level.
“I think its purpose is to show people what’s happening, and to show them that Westerners are fighting this, that they’re not falling down,” says Harvey, a former National Outdoor Book Award winner. “Americans have never taken any great injustice lying down. People love the West. This heritage that we have very much defines us. If you drill these hundreds of rigs and wells just pell mell all across the land, then it’s going to be forever transformed, rendered into something else. … I want to show people that they still have a chance to do something.”
While Harvey’s film doesn’t have a distributor as yet, Thielen says a number of the documentaries at this year’s festival do, like “God Grew Tired of Us,” which won the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The movie, which has Brad Pitt as an executive producer, and is narrated by Nicole Kidman, explores the experiences in the United States of three of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who emigrated to this country after spending their formative years in the midst of civil war, then in a refugee camp in Kenya.
The festival screenings of the film are among the first since it premiered at Sundance. The documentary is “definitely on a strong Oscar nomination track,” Thielen says.
“It’s an amazing story, a really inspiring story,” she says. “It takes us into another world, and it helps us see that world through another person’s eyes. It presents very unique, very unusual circumstances.”
Two other films which will be released by distributors in theaters in the future are “Jesus Camp,” which takes a look at the evangelical right through the eyes of children, and the “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which includes never-before-seen archival footage of the late Beatle.
Thielen says the first film, which follows three children to a summer camp in North Dakota, will be one of the most-talked about films of the festival.
“Obviously the filmmakers are going to have a point of view, but you get an insider’s look at the evangelical movement and how they are working with children,” she says. “It’s going to divide audiences for sure. It’s going to make people think.”
The other film takes a fresh look at Lennon’s transformation from a young pop star into a spokesperson for the peace movement, and the increasing discomfort he caused within the Nixon administration.
Another film which has yet to find a distributor is “Beyond the Call,” which follows three grown men into some of the world’s hottest hot spots to provide humanitarian aid.
“These three guys, they’re basically global cowboys, undeterred by dangerous situations,” Thielen says. “What I love about the film is that it is very inspiring because it’s people who are touching lives on a one-person-at-a-time basis.”
The latter statement could be used to encapsulate the objective of all the documentaries at this year’s festival.
While documentaries continue to grow in popularity at the box office, they’re still not as commercially viable as big-studio productions. Film festivals are places where these inspired ” and often times inspiring ” films can be seen by large audiences, Thielen says.
“Documentaries are hard to market. There are no stars attached to them, and they’re usually isn’t a lot of money behind them. More and more we’re hearing about how documentaries are doing well at the box office, but their exposure is also very limited,” Thielen says. “There isn’t a screen in this valley devoted entirely to documentary films … A lot of what we’ll have this year, the chances are, our festival screenings will be the only opportunity for people to see them. And that’s our mission: To bring the world of film to this area.”