Documentary filmmakers chronicle difficult stories

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In documentary boxoffice annals, 2007 won't be noted as a year of barrier-busting business. For all the attention he's drawn with "Sicko" (the Weinstein Co.), even Michael Moore hasn't approached the $119 million gross of his previous effort, 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- not that $25 million for a nonfiction film about health insurance is anything to, well, sneeze at. But while documentary cinema as a whole remains a fringe performer in terms of receipts, the genre is mainstreaming in other, more crucial ways.

For sheer dramatic power, the true stories documentary filmmakers unearth are hard to top. And with small-screen news media increasingly driven by sound bites, these do-it-yourself artists are stepping into the void to chronicle our times.

"This is truly the area where the public is going to get their news and the stories that are really out there," Sandra Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit International Documentary Assn., says of nonfiction film.

This year's Academy shortlist of feature-length documentaries reflects the genre's of-the-moment immediacy, with an emphasis on social-activist fare and no less than four films about the war in Iraq -- ThinkFilm's "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," "Body of War" and Magnolia Pictures' "No End in Sight," which reveals a scathing insiders' view of administrative incompetence and cynicism, with high-ranking military and administrative figures detailing the uninformed decisions that left Iraq in chaos.

"In my genetic material, I'm a policy wonk," says "No End" helmer Charles Ferguson, a former senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, information technology entrepreneur and self-described film obsessive who had never before been behind the camera. "My hope and ideal was to produce something that was rigorously accurate -- that my friends in Building E53 at MIT would still talk to me in the morning but that it would be accessible to a nonspecialist audience."

Between its rigorous lines of discussion, the film, which represents only 1% of the interview material Ferguson gathered, is also a collective portrait of hurt and disillusion.

"If you've gone through something like that, you have very powerful emotions about it, watching a country crumble in front of your eyes," Ferguson says, noting that there were times during the interview process -- such as when he spoke with brain-injured Army soldier Hugo Gonzalez -- when he struggled to keep his composure.

On the Oscar shortlist and beyond, there's ample evidence of the ways the documentarian often functions as journalist and psychologist. Sensitive interviews were crucial to IFC Films' "Deep Water," Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's haunting portrait of Donald Crowhurst, a participant in an ill-fated 1968 yacht race.

"One of the most poignant things about the interviews for me was that for both Clare (Crowhurst's widow) and Simon, his son, they remembered the highs of that year with the happiness they felt at the time. You actually felt their spirits raise," Osmond says. "It's extraordinary when you see people reliving memories like that."

Interviews are also essential to "In the Shadow of the Moon" (ThinkFilm), which illuminates the experiences of the surviving Apollo astronauts with an unexpected intimacy. Director David Sington says a good deal of research and preparation went into the interviews, some of which took place over two days for eight or nine hours.

"I had been talking to my wife for a lot less than eight hours before I decided that she was going to be a very important part of my life," Sington says. "You can get onto a very intimate footing with somebody after a couple of hours of conversation, particularly if you're talking about things very deeply in their past."

Some filmmakers prefer other ways of getting close to their subjects. "I don't like to do interviews," says Jonathan Demme, whose "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains" (Sony Pictures Classics) follows the former president on his controversy-stirring 2006 book tour for "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." "I like to turn the camera on and be with people and let them come forth and see what they're like in that moment."

Carter, Demme says, never fought the ground rule of unrestricted access for the verite feature, at once a character study, cross-country road trip and issue paper focused on Carter's quest for peace and justice in the Middle East. Demme found the combination a "visual and thematic treasure trove" that "would take us behind the scenes of American media 2007. ... What do they do with this book, with this subject matter? And what they did is what they so often do, which is to latch onto one surface aspect, the title, as a way of avoiding the content."

Through an example of Carter's diplomacy and intellectual curiosity, the film also stands as implicit criticism of the current administration. "I like to think of it as a two-hour rebuke to Bush in an interesting way," says Demme, whose respect and admiration for Carter infuses the film.

But documentarians embarking on a shoot don't always know what they think of their subject. Filmmaking was an act of personal discovery for Tony Kaye, who takes on the incendiary topic of abortion in the Oscar-shortlisted "Lake of Fire" (ThinkFilm), which was 16 years in the making.

Setting out to make a film of "epic depth -- to go as far as I could into both sides of the debate," Kaye was interested not in the political machinations surrounding the issue but the debate itself. He also was trying to figure things out for himself.

"I'm not sure I have completed it," Kaye says. "I had to put it out now; I had to come out of the cave. ... But whatever else I do, I am going to continually be going back to 'Lake of Fire,' for as long as I can."

Kaye says he went bankrupt making the film, which he self-financed to the tune of $7 million. "I had no confidence in the concept that somebody else was going to put money into it. It's not a commercial film," Kaye says of the 152-minute B&W docudrama, which includes graphic footage of abortion procedures.

Most documakers don't sink that much of their own funds -- or 16 years of their lives -- into a film, but even on a smaller scale, they're often going out on a limb artistically and financially.

Ferguson's previous life as a businessman enabled him to spend $2 million of his own money on "No End in Sight" and forgo the potential intrusion of production partners. "Everything I was told about getting investors involved in financing film suggested that the ratio of money received to headaches that I would have to deal with would be a high number," he says. "I wanted to be able to say to myself and to the world that there was absolutely no pressure of any kind from anybody for me to change my view or what was in the film. I could just tell the story."

For Seth Gordon -- who, after working on "Shut Up & Sing" (2006) and "New York Doll" (2005), makes his feature directorial bow with Picturehouse's "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" -- "sweat equity" kept the project going as he and producer Ed Cunningham followed a video game rivalry that plays out like an Old West showdown. "It's a pure passion project -- it didn't make any rational or business sense to do this film," Gordon says. "But we just couldn't stop. We were so compelled by the material and so excited by what we found."

Jessica Yu, who won an Oscar in 1997 for her short "Breathing Lessons" and whose "In the Realms of the Unreal" was shortlisted for the award in 2004, has worked both with and without upfront funding. For this year's "Protagonist," which, by way of Euripedes, explores four lives defined by fanaticism, she didn't have to alternate between production and fundraising and could focus on "the good creative problems."

"Even if you have a decent budget, it's still a labor of love just by virtue of how many hours everyone ends up working on it," says Yu. Her films are particularly labor-intensive because of the handcrafted elements she employs: animation in "Realms" and puppets in "Protagonist."

For more and more filmmakers, drawn by story rather than genre, the choice between nonfiction and narrative is no longer an either/or proposition. As a result, documentaries take another step in from the margins.

In Ferguson's "perfect universe," he would alternate between the two genres. Osmond is at work on a narrative screenplay, and Sington's next film "straddles documentary and drama." Before revisiting "Lake of Fire," Kaye is busy with narrative features, while Yu, who up until the writers strike was directing ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," has helmed her first feature comedy, "Ping Pong Playa." Gordon will direct a narrative remake of "Kong," as well as the 2008 Vince Vaughn comedy "Four Christmases," but has no plans to leave docus behind.

"I certainly don't want to only live in that (narrative) world," he says, "because there's nothing better than finding it in real life."

Demme agrees. For more than a year, he's been visiting New Orleans neighborhoods to chart "the changing visual ecology and human ecology" of the post-

Katrina city. Even his Oscar for 1991's "Silence of the Lambs" doesn't compare to the rewards of this relatively solitary pursuit.

"I haven't really lost interest in fiction," Demme says, "but my interest and my passion for documentaries just continues to increase. It's the one thing more than anything that makes me think, 'Well, I am a real filmmaker.'"
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