What’s up? Docs and more at Filmfest 2004
For decades, documentary films have been labors of love, projects intended more for personal satisfaction, or historical or social significance, than pleasing crowds. It was the rare documentary film – “Woodstock,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “The Thin Blue Line” – that made any kind of noticeable ripple in the fabric of commercial filmmaking.In the mid-’90s, a small handful of films – “Crumb,” “Hoop Dreams” – earned unusual attention for documentaries. But they didn’t seem to usher in a new era for documentaries.That new day has now dawned. Hogging the spotlight, of course, is Michael Moore’s hypercritical dissection of the Bush II administration, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But even discounting the stunning commercial success of Moore’s blockbuster – $118 million and counting, by far a record for a documentary – documentary films have established themselves as worthy of attention from film-goers, filmmakers and distributors. This year alone, “Winged Migration,” “Super Size Me,” “Fog of War” and “Touching the Void” – films about, respectively, birds in flight, fast food, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and a disastrous climb in the Peruvian Andes – have topped $4.5 million in domestic receipts.Documentaries have always found a comfortable home in the realm of film festivals, which attract fans who seek movie experiences the multiplexes don’t generally offer. Documentaries have been a cornerstone of Aspen Filmfest; some 20 percent of the films screened over the last handful of years have been documentaries, including “The Endurance,” about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic exploration; “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” about the birth of California’s skateboard culture; and “Spellbound,” a profile of participants in the National Spelling Bee.Now, as documentaries inch closer toward the multiplex, Filmfest takes a new look at the phenomenon. Aspen Filmfest 2004, which runs Sept. 29 through Oct. 3, will feature the special program Fahrenheit, Fries, Fox and Fairness: The New Political Documentary, a panel discussion about the new wave of sociopolitical documentaries. The event, set for Oct. 2 at the Wheeler Opera House, will include directors Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) and Robert Greenwald (“Outfoxed,” “Uncovered”), and Jeff Gibbs, co-producer of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Media critic and American University professor Pat Aufderheide will moderate the event.”What’s getting attention now is political or activist documentaries – films presenting a point of view not given a lot of time by the mass media,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest. “People are picking up on that, maybe because it’s an especially charged time, with an election, the war in Iraq. And even reality TV has created an appetite for unmediated storytelling.
“Exhibitors are more interested in booking documentaries because there’s box office for it. For a long time, documentaries were ghettoized to a PBS slot. Now with Michael Moore, ‘Spellbound’ – there are a lot of different kinds of documentaries getting attention.”Filmfest won’t screen any of the works by the filmmakers participating in the discussion; Thielen explains that they have been largely available to local audiences. But Filmfest will offer its usual slate of documentaries in its True Stories series.”Born Into Brothels” is an extension of a photography exhibit that showed at the Woody Creek Gallery a few years ago. The film, co-directed by photographer Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman, chronicles a photography workshop for young prostitutes in India. The film, which earned the Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary, will be accompanied by a photo exhibit at the Wheeler.”Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America,” profiles the first executive director of the Sierra Club. The footage, largely Brower’s own 16mm film, dates back to the 1950s, making for what Thielen calls “a very personal, lyrical film.””Tarnation” is an intensely personal self-portrait of French-born New York actor Jonathan Caouette, whose first film documents 19 years of disturbing family history. Produced by Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), “Tarnation” is “very raw, very personal, but not self-pitying,” said Thielen. “He came from an unbelievably, traumatically dysfunctional family. It’s an amazing n see Filmfest on page B5– continued from page B7documentary of someone using film to go through the healing process.”
Now showingOutside of the documentary realm, Filmfest ’04 offers the usual array of American features, foreign films and special programs.Heading the list of special events is the presentation of the Independent By Nature Award to actor-producer Michael Douglas. Douglas will be presented the award on opening night, Sept. 29, at the Wheeler. The event, including film clips and an onstage interview by Joel Schumacher, will be followed by a benefit dinner. Filmfest will also present daytime screenings of two Douglas films: “Falling Down,” directed by Schumacher, and “The China Syndrome,” which Douglas also produced.Being presented as the Festival Centerpiece is “The Best of Youth,” a six-hour film to be screened in two parts. An epic that covers 40 years of Italian history through the eyes of two Roman brothers, Marco Tullio Giordana’s film was made for Italian television, but was suppressed by the Berlusconi government. Since its U.S. premiere last year at the Telluride Film Festival, it has been shown at a few festivals.”The Wool Cap,” by the team of actor William H. Macy and writer-director Steven Schachter, is being shown as a Free Community Presentation. The film features Macy as a mute building superintendent who unexpectedly finds himself caring for a 12-year-old girl.Filmfest ’04 edges close to the mainstream with “I ô Huckabees” and “Around the Bend.” The former is the latest by writer-director David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “Flirting with Disaster”), and stars Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as a husband-and-wife existential detective team. Also featured are Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law and Naomi Watts.”Around the Bend,” the tale of four generations of the Lair family, is the directorial debut of Jordan Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for “Road to Perdition.” The cast is headed by Michael Caine and Christopher Walken.
Foreign films include “Les Choristes,” a hit in its native France and Filmfest’s Closing Night presentation; and “Travelers and Magicians,” a film from Bhutan. “Les Choristes,” set in post-World War II France, is an emotional story of a new teacher in the harsh environment of a boy’s home. “Travelers and Magicians” tells of a young Bhutanese obsessed with America.Also to be screened are “Dear Frankie,” starring Emily Mortimer as a young, single mother who has deceived her 9-year-old son into thinking his father is away at sea; “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” a biopic starring Geoffrey Rush as the late comic actor and misanthrope; and Walter Salles’ “Motorcycle Diaries,” adapted from the journals of a young Che Guevara; and “Stage Beauty,” starring Billy Crudup as a cross-dressing actor in 17th-century London.Tickets for Filmfest 2004 go on sale Sept. 22. Tickets for all programs will be available at the Wheeler Opera House box office, and tickets for Carbondale and Glenwood Springs programs will be available at Sounds Easy in Carbondale and the Book Train in Glenwood Springs.The full schedule will be available online Friday, Sept. 10, at http://www.aspenfilm.orgStewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org