'Truth' about feature docs good news

A crop of outstanding documentaries bravely examines some of the modern world's most pressing issues -- from global warming to free speech.

At May's Festival de Cannes, Paramount Vantage's newly installed president, John Lesher, celebrated the rebirth of the specialty division with two films screening at France's premier cinema showcase: "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's complex narrative about the boundaries that divide us, which played In Competition to rave reviews, and Davis Guggenheim's global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," which not only made science compelling but made former Vice President Al Gore seem prescient -- and turned him into a rock star of the environmental movement.

Months later, "Truth" has earned about $24 million, making it the year's highest-grossing docu and a front-runner in the Academy Awards' feature-length docu race. "To tell you the truth, the film has done beyond our expectations at the boxoffice and is already a winner in our minds," Guggenheim says. "To win an award would be fantastic, but we judge its success by how many people pay to see the movie. That's the most gratifying thing in the world."

With the continued creative and commercial renaissance of the feature-length docu format, more people are paying to see nonfiction films on the big screen -- maybe not as many as paid to see, say, 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11" or last year's sensation "March of the Penguins" but enough to make them good business for just about everyone in the industry. Except, perhaps, for the documentarians themselves, who typically spend years on a single project, earning little money. But the filmmakers responsible for some of the year's best docus -- those most likely to be in contention at the Oscars -- say that it's their passion for a particular subject rather than any hopes of financial gain that drives them.

"Like the producers of the film, I didn't take a salary on the movie," Guggenheim says. "The reason all of us wanted to do the project was we saw this slide show on the environment that Al Gore did on his computer, and after 10 minutes, we were blown away by how passionate he was."

Representing who their subjects truly are is imperative to documentarians and the reason why so many of them research their projects for years before shooting their first interview. In Lionsgate's "Deliver Us From Evil," Amy Berg faced an unenviable challenge in documenting the experiences of former Catholic priest Father Oliver O'Grady, a convicted pedophile who abused countless children over the course of his two decades serving in the church in Northern California.

"It was such a surreal experience talking to him," says Berg, a former CNN and CBS News producer. "I hadn't actually planned on making a film about this subject, but once he agreed to be interviewed, it was a no-brainer. My plan wasn't to make a sensationalistic film but rather one that explored why this man did what he did."

In her broadcast news career, Berg had spent four years investigating pedophile priests, and it was during the course of her research that she became fascinated by O'Grady and his superiors in the church, who knew about his actions but decided to move him from parish to parish rather than remove him from the ministry or report him to the authorities. It took Berg five months to persuade O'Grady to speak on camera for the film, and once he agreed, she immediately flew to his native Ireland -- where he had returned after being released from prison -- for the interviews.

"It was interesting because I never got the feeling that he was sorry for what he had done," Berg says. "He was very disconnected about the abuse he had inflicted and didn't seem to realize all the pain he had caused his victims."

Religion also figures prominently in Magnolia Pictures' "Jesus Camp." Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow three children who attend the Kids on Fire camp at the ironically named Devil's Lake, N.D., which is presided over by Becky Fisher of Kids in Ministry International. Ewing and Grady were inspired to do the film after working on their last docu, 2005's "The Boys of Baraka," in which one of their subjects was a 12-year-old black Baptist preacher. They were fascinated by his devotion to his faith and decided to explore the topic further with "Jesus Camp."

"The children in the film are scarily confident," Ewing says. "They live in a world of absolutes and sleep very well at night, but they worry that you won't sleep well because you're not a believer. They have very solid beliefs, and I never got used to it. Sometimes, you even envy them for having it all figured out -- even if it's something you do not agree with."

Many docu filmmakers say that in an age of sound bites, their genre is the best format in which to explore political and social subject matter in a meaningful way. Deborah Scranton, director of SenArt Films' "The War Tapes," says she was inspired to make her film, which was shot entirely by soldiers on the ground in Iraq, as a way to really understand what was happening in that country.

"I wanted to make a documentary about the war because the mainstream media is limited to short segments where you don't have the opportunity to get the full story," Scranton says. "Docus allow you to go on that journey and experience what the subject is experiencing. I'm not saying that documentaries are a replacement for the news because documentaries don't come out as the news is happening. But for people who are interested in getting a fuller picture, they're a wonderful medium."

Scranton came up with the idea for "War Tapes" after receiving an invitation to embed in Iraq with the New Hampshire National Guard. She says she thought the more compelling story would be to see the war directly through the soldiers' eyes and offered all 180 soldiers in Charlie Company the chance to participate in making the docu. Ten volunteered, and five continued throughout the duration of the project. "I knew that the Charlie Company would be perfect for a couple of reasons," she says. "They're an infantry unit, and I knew they'd have Internet access. I knew that once I got the cameras to them, I could work with them over the Internet."

Scranton did stay in contact with her novice filmmakers via e-mail, going over the material they sent her and then editing the footage together. In the end, Scranton says "War Tapes," which was named best docu at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, has been one of her most fulfilling creative experiences. "I'm hoping that when people watch the film, they see that these aren't just soldiers in a foreign country but rather men probably not too different from the ones they know," she says.

Director Christopher Quinn's Newmarket docu "God Grew Tired of Us" also explores something that audiences wouldn't necessarily see on the evening news: an intimate look into the experiences of three Sudanese men reinventing their lives in the U.S. "When I started this project, people just stared at me like I was crazy when I said I wanted to do a documentary about Sudan," Quinn says. "They viewed it as a project that wouldn't be viable."

By focusing solely on the lives of these three men, who come to the U.S. with nothing yet manage to thrive, Quinn crafted a film that is poignant and uplifting but still topical and relevant. Life in America is treated somewhat more ambiguously, however, in two of the year's docus dealing with free speech and outspoken musicians. Lionsgate's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" reveals the Nixon administration's attempts to deport the former Beatle, while the Weinstein Co.'s "Shut Up & Sing" covers the aftermath of Dixie Chicks' career after one of the country trio's members made an off-the-cuff negative comment about President George W. Bush.

"When John (Scheinfeld) and I make a documentary, we structure it as if we're scripting a fictional feature film," "Lennon" co-director David Leaf says. "We set up a story line, break it up into three acts, and then we 'cast' it. We look for the most credible people to talk about what's important for that portion of the film. If we're talking about Vietnam, we get Ron Kovic. If we need perspective about the 1960s, we get Noam Chomsky. If we want to talk about American history, we talk to Gore Vidal."

Vidal, in particular, offers some controversial insights, saying that while Lennon represented life, "Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush ... represent death." Fortunately for Vidal, his comments are unlikely to stir up as much vitriol as when Chicks singer Natalie Maines said during a 2003 London concert that she was ashamed "the president of the United States is from Texas." Maines' comment raised the ire of many of the band's fans, and not only was the group banned from certain country radio stations, but they received hate mail and death threats from people who deemed them un-American.

"I don't think the comment would've caused as much of a stink if a male rock singer had said it," says two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who co-directed "Shut Up & Sing" with Cecilia Peck. "But country music felt completely betrayed by the Dixie Chicks. They were not the quiet, obedient girls that everyone thought they were. I'm sure everyone was expecting them to apologize and ingratiate themselves back onto radio, but they stood strong and held true to their convictions."

Maines almost was moved to tears when she saw an early cut of the film. When fellow Chick Martie Maguire is interviewed, she says she would rather break up the band than keep it going if it would be too painful for Maines to remain in the group. Kopple recalls Maines looking over at Maguire and mouthing "thank you."

The documentarians all are aware of each other's work and have admirable things to say about their colleagues. Guggenheim raves about Berg's "Deliver Us From Evil," while Berg is equally complimentary about "Truth." "It's a good thing for all of us when a documentary does well commercially," Berg says. "None of us are in this for the money, but the better these films do, the more interest there will be in producing more good films."