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Films in search of screens

Documentary filmmaking is booming, but distribution lags. One festival's powerful films stirred emotion and enthusiasm among viewers, but these tiny gems may never reach a wider audience.

By MIKE WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001


DURHAM, N.C. -- If you were trying to sum up the state of documentary filmmaking today, you might well start with the story of Sisters in Resistance, which had its southeast premiere here over the weekend.

The film -- one of 100 shown at the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival -- focuses on four young women who fought in the French resistance during World War II, only to be arrested, beaten and packed off to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

This story of sisterhood and moral courage had a roomful of filmgoers misting over in sadness and admiration. Seeing their response, you had to think the movie would do well before a mass audience.

After the screening, first-time filmmaker Maia Wechsler sat for an interview -- her first. ("I've gotten no press," she said.) She spent $135,000 on the film (her friend Rene Echevarria, a TV producer and St. Petersburg native, helped her raise the money) and is now $20,000 in debt.

She doesn't know when, or if, Sisters in Resistance will be distributed in theaters or shown on TV.

"PBS wants my film, but they don't want to pay for it," she said. By the time the weekend was over, a dozen other filmmakers had told similar stories.

Still, it would have been hard to leave DoubleTake feeling discouraged. Digital video equipment is so inexpensive that practically anyone can make a film (and this year, practically everyone did -- the festival received 530 submissions). The market for real-life films has expanded beyond theaters and home video to include HBO, Court TV, A&E's Biography and Web broadcasts.

Even reality TV, the snot-nosed kid brother of traditional documentary, was welcomed as a sign that the public wants cinema verite, however tricked up.

Most encouraging of all were the films themselves -- from Gibtown, about carnival families in Gibsonton, to Diamonds and Rust, an expose of life on a diamond-dredging ship, to Wechsler's touching story of the four old French friends.

Wechsler worked on the film in obscurity for seven years, during which she gave birth to her two children.

"If anybody asked me what I did," she said, "I told them I was a stay-at-home mom."

* * *

Nancy Buirski, a former foreign picture editor at the New York Times, founded DoubleTake in 1998. What started as one woman's inspiration has grown into the largest such festival in the United States, in terms of films submitted. (The Sundance Film Festival has a substantial documentary event.) This year DoubleTake sold 750 festival passes (at $100 per) and almost 10,000 individual tickets, nearly twice last year's number. Films were shown on three screens inside the Art Deco Carolina Theater, which the festival is quickly outgrowing.

The event opened Thursday night with The Press Secretary, three days in the life of former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart. Lockhart was present for the opening, as was filmmaker Ted Bogosian, the former NOVA producer.

"It's not always the smartest idea to finish a film on Wednesday and world-premiere it on Thursday before an audience of filmmakers and the subject of the film," Bogosian said in introducing it.

He needn't have worried about Lockhart's reaction. The film accepts Lockhart's premise that the government would do a swell job if the media didn't keep stirring things up. It shows Lockhart leading his team into "battle" (the narrator's word) against a press corps that has so little access to meaningful information that it appears defeated from the start.

Said Lockhart after the screening: "We got quite attached to Ted and his team."

Bogosian is a lucky guy. A grant from a production company allowed him to make the film in high-definition video, giving life to Lockhart's every twitch and smirk. He was also one of the few at DoubleTake who can be reasonably sure his film will be seen: PBS is looking for a place for it on the fall schedule and is willing to pay.

Some filmmakers are fortunate enough to get commissions from HBO and other outlets. But Bogosian guessed that three-fourths of the films shown here "will have to fight their way onto television or into a movie theater."

An example is Pieces, a 22-minute film about three Miami detectives who worked to recover wreckage and bodies after the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades.

What did they find?

"Lots of feet," one detective told filmmakers Steve Petersen and Jon O'Neill. "Feet come off at the ankle, and we learned that out there."

The film offers a rare look into the emotional lives of rescue workers. But you can see why the commercial possibilities are limited.

* * *

A documentary film festival isn't like Cannes or Toronto -- film directors arrive in rental cars, not limos, and the press doesn't pay much attention at all.

Even the "celebrities" at DoubleTake were accessible. Barbara Kopple, who won Oscars forHarlan County, USA (about a union fight in a Kentucky coal town) and American Dream (about Hormel workers on strike in Minnesota) made herself available to anyone who wanted to talk film. The day after The Press Secretary made its debut, Bogosian was sitting alone outside the Carolina Theater, waiting for someone to talk to.

Also milling about were Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz, thirtyish Israeli filmmakers whose mild personalities belie the grit and power of their film, Diamonds and Rust. They spent 90 days aboard a diamond-dredging ship in the Diamond Zone off the African coast -- and DeBeers and the Namibian government, the ship's owners, aren't going to like the result.

The film makes plain that DeBeers values diamonds more than it does the people who dig them up. Black people, one white diamond worker says, "are a different species." Namibians on the ship work seven days a week for $125 a month.

"A diamond is fiction. It's public relations," Barash said in an after-screening chat. "That's what DeBeers is good with."

Canadian TV has bought Diamonds and Rust and Europe is interested. No word yet about the U.S.

* * *

The festival's top prize was shared by Avant de Partir (Before Leaving), about life in a retirement home outside Paris, and Benjamin Smoke, about a Georgia singer-songwriter. If there had been a prize for best timing, it would have gone to Startup.com, which tracks the birth and gruesome death of an Internet company. You have a good chance of actually seeing this one.

Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, friends since high school, founded govWorks.com, where customers could pay parking tickets and transact other mundane business with local government. They raised $60-million in venture capital and, through tireless work, lost every cent of it.

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim (Tuzman's roommate -- that's how she got onto the story) followed the partners from their choice of a company name to the inevitable fissure in their friendship.

"If there's no possibility of a cash settlement," Herman says when Tuzman pushes him out of the company, "this is going to get very ugly." There isn't, and it does.

Artisan Entertainment has signed on to distribute the film, whose Web site is Startupthefilm.com. The directors told a familiar story about their experience: They spent a year and a half on the story, documenting 400 hours of action to make a 96-minute film.

"We're broke," Noujaim said.

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