Cover Story: Hot Docs

Another good year for documentary films


Muderball failed to find an audience despite a wide release.

The Year of the Documentary — proclaimed in 2004 after the success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me — is turning into the Golden Age of Documentaries after 2005's successes.

Once it was rare for a documentary to even make it into non-IMAX theaters. But now there's virtually always at least one playing in town. And the biggest ones are at the multiplex, like this year's March of the Penguins and Marilyn Agrelo's wonderful tale of New York students learning social skills through dancing, Mad Hot Ballroom.

Three very different animal movies led the way this year. To date, the French-filmed March of the Penguins has grossed an astonishing $77.4 million, Judy Irving's smaller The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill $3 million and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man $3.2 million. (Not that long ago, it was rare for a documentary to gross even $1 million.)

The first two are lovingly crafted observations on the anthropomorphic qualities of birds struggling for survival in unforgiving environments. The last one, largely edited from footage left behind by an amateur naturalist killed by an Alaskan grizzly, served as a cautionary tale about taking anthropomorphism too far. All three had strong narratives worthy of fictional films; Grizzly Man in particular played like a real-life Blair Witch Project.

"It used to be we'd call a documentary 'the D word,' because audiences would stay away," says Ken Eisen, whose Shadow Releasing distributed Wild Parrots and who also runs the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Maine. "We don't have to worry about that anymore. This is the Golden Age of Documentaries, really. The technology has put the means of making worthwhile documentaries in the hands of lots of people. They can take video cameras in places they couldn't take 35-millimeter cameras. And often, simply finding the right subject gets you a long way toward making a good film."

That's certainly true. And two of the year's more notable documentaries relied not so much on artfulness as on access to its subjects.

Greg Whiteley's New York Doll chronicled how Glam-rocker-turned-Mormon Arthur "Killer" Kane, bassist with the New York Dolls, was able to reunite with members of his influential-before-their-time band before dying of leukemia. And although there were conceptual moments and some filmed song-skits in Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, at heart it was just a raw — visually as well as in her use of language — performance film.

New York Doll also was an example of another kind of documentary growing in popularity — the cult musician. While Hollywood concentrates on iconic, almost-folkloric figures for biopics, like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, docs this year turned to lesser-knowns. Besides Kane, subjects were New York-based operatic Pop singer Klaus Nomi (Andrew Horn's The Nomi Song) and laconic Texas Folk songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Margaret Brown's bittersweet Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt).

Meanwhile, Moore's influence continued to be felt via often-irreverently essayist, populist documentaries about contemporary politics. True, nothing came close to earning Fahrenheit's $119 million or in capturing the Zeitgeist as that film did in a heated election year. Nevertheless, new political films proved provocative.

Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter's critique of the globalized economy through its impact on wine cultivation, had trouble making its point, but it worked as a beautiful travelogue of world vineyards.

Marc Levin's Protocols of Zion tried to soften its frightening discoveries about the extent of anti-Semitism in today's Middle East and elsewhere with the agreeable Levin's on-screen, Moore-like conversations with people. And Alex Gibney's visually hip, entertaining exposé of the Enron scandal (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) shocked everyone by earning $4 million.

Speaking of shocking, Paul Provenza's The Aristocrats shocked with its outrageousness. Famous comedians, filmed during informal conversations, gleefully recited versions of a "taboo" blue joke about an incestuous family. Released unrated with the slogan, "No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity," it earned $6.3 million.

David Fenkel, vice president of marketing for ThinkFilms, which released The Aristocrats, says it's emblematic of a new wave of documentaries that want to break rules in terms of content or structure ... or both.

"Aristocrats wasn't easily identifiable as a documentary," he says. "You couldn't really classify it."

Another 2005 film not easily classified as a documentary was Jessica Yu's stylized and mesmerizing In the Realms of the Unreal, about the mysterious life and artwork of the reclusive Henry Darger.

If there was a disappointment this year, it was in the failure of a couple highly praised documentaries about people with disabilities — Murderball and Touch the Sound — to find an audience. Murderball, a film by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro about quadriplegic young men achieving success through wheelchair rugby, earned just $1.5 million despite a wide rollout.

Touch the Sound, Thomas Riedelsheimer's worthy follow-up to the beautiful Rivers and Tides, was about a world-acclaimed classical percussionist who is deaf. It had trouble getting wide release.

"I hope it's not a syndrome that if people think it's about a person with disabilities they stay away," says Shadow's Eisen, who distributed Touch the Sound. "The point of the movie was that people weren't constrained by their disabilities. We saw that as a positive."

Fenkel, whose company released Murderball, expressed similar concerns. "We tried to have an amazing drama with great storytelling," he says. "Even though everyone knew about it, the initial subject matter was too much of a turnoff."

Fenkel says people realize that Hollywood movies with stars portraying people with disabilities — My Left Foot, A Beautiful Mind — promise enough character development to create an emotional attachment for the audience. But people aren't yet sure documentaries with real people can achieve the same goals.

"People don't realize yet that the attachment will be there in documentaries," Fenkel says. "That's the next challenge." ©

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